When I was a kid Young Sherlock Holmes was one of my favourite movies (it still is). The young detective cut his teeth not on finding the family jewels, but on cults and devil worshippers. I have a feeling the screenwriters of the new Sherlock Holmes may have been as well. Which is not a necessarily a bad thing; the majority of the original Holmes stories would not be big enough for the big screen (the main exception being The Hound of the Baskervilles, another supernatural tale).
In director Guy Ritchie’s foray into the Holmes canon, he presents a detective (played with immense glee by Robert Downey Jr) who is pompous, filthy, dismissive of official authority, conniving, and a desparate genius. His right hand man, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) is soon to leave him for quiet married life. There’s only one problem: Lord Blackwood, whom they thought had been hung for his crimes on their last case, apparently has risen from the grave and plans to take over the world.
Purists are not going to like this Holmes, though. While many of them ignore the darker aspect of the original Holmes (mainly his drug addiction), they insist upon Holmes as an intellectual rather than physical genius. But that kind of genius usually comes with a price: a kind of madness, often strange obsessions, a reluctance to observe the niceties of day-to-day life and society. The screenwriters and Ritchie have updated Holmes as this kind of genius madman. One whose understanding of the world is so unique and intricate it makes it almost impossible for him to live in.
Not that I wish to grant the film deeper meaning than it has. This is a popcorn film; A better than average one, of course. Ritchie might be a one-note director, but he plays that one note very well. His strength lies in director scenes with clever dialogue in such a way that the camera is part of that dialogue; his action sequences make excellent use of slow motion; and he knows to give his actors room to breathe. His style works well with the script, which is, while perhaps not the most engaging story, interesting and fun enough to sustain the film.
As mentioned, the story here is much bigger than any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories; it has to be to sustain the two hour running time. But then, this is a Hollywood film, so the bigger the better. Kids aren’t going to see Iron Man in a period film without seeing him beat a few guys up. But the Holmes brain is still there. The audience is allowed to hear Holmes’ inner calculations of how to overcome a physically more powerful assailant; proving to the kids in the audience that brains are generally preferable over brawn.
Ritchie, in general, does know how to cast his male performers. Downey is fantastic as always, and Mark Strong, who I confess I had not heard of before, makes an excellent villain in the grand British tradition. The only real weak spot is Rachel McAdams. Her character is supposedly Holmes’ intellectual equal, but that was not very evident. McAdams does not have the acting chops for this kind of part; but then I have never found Ritchie to be very adept with or kind to female characters.
But this is not deep stuff. This is a summer movie at Christmas. A fun, engaging enough story with good enough acting that feels perhaps a bit too long but still enjoyable.