Film Review: Sherlock Holmes

The British expression “Blast it!” takes on a very literal meaning in this noisy shoot-’em-up and blow-’em-up action version of Conan Doyle’s tales of master London sleuth Holmes and loyal assistant Watson.

Usually more laid-back chaps, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and sidekick Watson (Jude Law) are now action heroes in a tale stripped of modulations, intelligence and finesse. Yes, the mystery is still afoot: How did wicked dark-arts practitioner Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) survive his hanging even after Watson pronounced him dead and how can he be stopped before he ritually slaughters more victims and enacts his plan to take over the world? Of course, Holmes and Watson finally get their man, but not after all manner of elaborately orchestrated action scenes. At least young male audiences get what they want.

From Guy Ritchie, the director of such high-octane, muscular assaults as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, it’s logical, if not entirely satisfying, that his spin—really a bare-knuckled smack—on the Holmes canon should be so action-packed and irreverent. Indeed, this overproduced trifle might elude a hefty sliver of more demanding filmgoers otherwise drawn to the talents of Downey, Law and the iconic, brilliantly deductive detective himself.

Still, Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes fires up all cylinders in its effort to entertain, serving up handsome production values, elaborate set-pieces, and masses of black-magic hogwash and symbolism no doubt inspired by the Harry Potter and Dan Brown film adaptations.

As for Downey as Holmes and Law as Watson, the two classic Doyle creations, typically British and gentlemanly, here bicker like feuding lovers or old marrieds. And Holmes especially fights his adversaries with all the prowess and will of the mightiest of action heroes.

Beyond his heroics, Holmes is a mess. Egregiously unmindful of hygiene, the slovenly, painfully neurotic, reclusive, socially irresponsible master of deduction literally sweats over Watson’s imminent plan to move out and marry the fair Mary (Kelly Reilly). The conflicted genius is a keen boxer who battles in “Fight Club”-like matches but also adores the opera.

As in all Holmes tales, the case to be solved is the thing and in Sherlock Holmes it is complicated business, fashioned by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg from Johnson and Lionel Wigram’s screen story. While Holmes battles the elusive Blackwood, he is further spurred into action by a visit from American Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), his dangerous former paramour now working for a mysterious boss. Holmes’ sleuthing takes him and Watson into the bowels of a secret society whose relatively benign leader, Sir Thomas Rotheram (great vet Brit actor James Fox), is revealed as Blackwood’s not-so-proud daddy.

Supernatural happenings seem to infuse the case, but Holmes—again exercising his unmatched gifts for logical deduction—brings matters back to a scientifically sound Earth by revealing Blackwood’s clever trickery. Inevitably, Holmes and Blackwood meet in a fateful finale atop the unfinished Tower Bridge above the Thames. This archfiend may be gone but Holmes’ legendary archrival Moriarty is invoked at film’s end, opening the way for a sequel.

Happily, the late Victorian look of London is appealing and, with many sets of massive metal machinery and structures, notice has been given to the rise of industrialized society. Elaborate special effects and stunt work, to enhance the many fights and chases, are icing on this cinematic cake. But although Holmes here occasionally puffs on a pipe and is as remarkably observant as his predecessors, he has been sacrificed, though not in an occult ritual, on the altar of genre.