It is Holmes, dear friend, but not as we knew him. Director Guy Ritchie delivers a muscular and fun interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary Victorian detective.
The plot concerns a member of the aristocracy, Lord Blackwood, who after being hung for a series of murders associated with his black magic rituals, appears to rise from the grave. Fresh murders of his close associates set the city on edge, (although we never really get a sense of this) and having previously taunted Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) with details of his next dastardly feat, the clock is set by whatever force is at work for Holmes to prevent catastrophe, aided by his trusted friend, Dr John Watson (Jude Law).
My initial prejudices told me Ritchie’s Holmes would be nothing more than a buddy movie; Lethal Weapon set in old London town. The truth is that it is, but it’s not all that bad. There are the usual Ritchie bare-knuckle fight scenes, cockney accents and heavies (one bore a striking resemblance to either Eric Cantona or boxer Nikolai Valuev, but is in fact WWF wrestler, Robert Maillet), but it all finds a fitting home in the glooming of period London.
The dialogue between Holmes and Watson is punctuated by their good-natured bickering throughout the film, providing a zest to their scenes and also defining their co-dependent relationship. Watson is an ex-military man with a weakness for gambling that Holmes restrains, a far cry from the genteel character portrayed in previous adaptations, and a suitable foil to his partner in detection. Holmes attempts to see off Watson’s impending engagement with a view to preserving their adventures together, but he also has a distraction in Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the only criminal ever to have ever outwitted him in both mind and heart.
Downey Jr mutes and moulds himself into a man who suffers his genius and retreats from the ordinary world by necessity rather than choice, into a room darkened with the fug of his own pipesmoke. Watson is essential, being the only person who picks up the detritus of Holmes’ life at home and keep things in order. This rebalancing of power is the most noticeable departure from the characters of the novels. It does however, feed the mutually dependent relationship between the two men, and so the reinterpretation works quite well in this respect. The sub-plot of choosing your lover over your best friend is played out in an entertaining way, but I couldn’t help think it took away the sinister chill of the main narrative. More than once I was reminded of the tone of The Young Sherlock Holmes.
Although the art department has pitched the tone nicely, the film forsakes real cerebral ingenuity and detective work for fight sequences and explosions. As a result, the film is fun, but lacks the creeping sense of foreboding that made the original stories of the great detective so thrilling. As ever, key London landmarks are thrown in for the sake of sales in non-UK markets, and it does feel a little contrived, with one set-piece too many needlessly dragging out the ending. The almost casual mention of Holmes’ ultimate nemesis in the final scenes did not strike the required fear and anticipation into the heart for the inevitable sequel. A darker outlook is required for the next outing. Quickly Watson! To the screenwriters, there’s not a moment to lose!