The Good: Decent overall direction, Interesting perspective/narrative moments, Consistent acting
The Bad: Thoroughly unlikable characters, Mystery isn't engaging, Pacing is off, Overall boring.
The Basics: The Guy Ritchie interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is a souped-up, dumbed-down action-adventure film that is not worth the attention of viewers.
It was not so long ago where it was not considered a particularly good idea to hinge a franchise on Robert Downey, Jr. Until he won the role of Iron Man (click here for my review!), the last person to take such a risk on Downey Jr. ended up severely disappointed. After all, it is not uncommon for fans of Ally McBeal to blame Robert Downey Jr. for the rocky penultimate season of the popular dramedy series. Since then, Downey Jr. has managed to turn his life around and he is considered reliable enough to bet the farm on. Jon Favreau has not been disappointed and it is hard to gauge whether or not Guy Ritchie, the director of Sherlock Holmes is feeling queasy about the actor or not. To be fair to Downey Jr., there are many, many reasons to loathe Sherlock Holmes without ever considering anything that is even remotely Robert Downey Jr.'s fault.
Sherlock Holmes is an abysmal action-adventure film and the truth is, I expected to like it quite a bit more than I ended up disliking it. The reason I expected to like the movie is that I try very hard to enter each and every movie experience with no expectations or comparisons. I thought that because I had never read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories that the reinvention of the character as something of an action hero would not bug me. So, even as my wife was squirming as we watched Sherlock Holmes and muttering, "That's nothing like Sherlock Holmes," I found myself bothered and bored by the movie. Even a viewer who only knew the interpretation of Sherlock Holmes from Star Trek The Next Generation (Data playing Sherlock Holmes) is likely to think that Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is nowhere near as cerebral as any detective ought to be.
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson thwart the attempt of Lord Blackwood to kill a young woman and as Watson prepares to move on with his life, Holmes becomes depressed. On the day of Blackwood's execution, Watson is charged with certifying the body as dead and everything appears to go off without a hitch. But as his last wish, Blackwood meets with Holmes and claims he shall return and three more people will die before Holmes learns the truth. Holmes is visited by a thief, Irene Adler, who asks Holmes to help her find a man and Holmes quickly learns she is being used by a mysterious man.
Holmes does, in fact, find the target, though unfortunately for him, he is already dead. Soon the bodies are piling up and as unlikely as it appears, Lord Blackwood may be involved. While Watson attempts to distance himself from Holmes and Adler manipulates Holmes, Holmes uncovers a secret society that is bent upon bringing about the apocalypse.
Sherlock Holmes is many things and one of the most surprising, when one considers the reputation Guy Ritchie has for making action films, is boring. The movie is surprisingly slow and not in a cerebral way. Ritchie loads the movie up with explosions, fast fights, scenes that repeat with alternate perspectives and characters who are often easy to watch. But despite the Hollywood beautiful people on screen fighting and running, the movie is slow, the dialogue is not particularly smart and the characters are wholly unlikable. In other words, Sherlock Holmes is not easy to watch because one does not find themselves caring about the characters, the situations they are in or anything else about the movie. In fact, while the costumes are all right, Rachel McAdams' most interesting costume - seen in many of the film's previews - does not actually appear in the finished film.
Sherlock Holmes is a character who, like every other detective, ought to be ruled by a sense of reason. So, one of the first challenges Holmes encounters is accepting Lord Blackwood's assertion that not everything might be rational. Like many stories that attempt to play in the "real world," Sherlock Holmes operates with a reasonable mind and his debunking of the supernatural hardly seems fresh. So, as Sherlock Holmes tries to determine how Lord Blackwood might be orchestrating larger events which might appear supernatural, the explanation of the physics is more mundane than it might have once appeared.
Sherlock Holmes is only distinct in a very few moments, times when Sherlock Holmes quickly evaluates the situation he is in, strategizes his next moves and then executes the plan. While these moments are screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham most clever moments, but Guy Ritchie's most banal. Ritchie insists on showing the exact execution of the plans that Holmes conceives and imagines moments after he strategizes them. There is a sense of redundancy that is . . . boring.
None of the characters in Sherlock Holmes particularly pop. While Irene Adler might be a fun character, she is a pretty generic femme fatale, just like Watson is a fairly generic sidekick. While Watson might be the archetypal assistant and the writers of Sherlock Holmes try to give him more depth with a fiance and his intent to strike out on his own, his actions never seem to make him plausibly independent of Holmes. The result is a character who is not engaging to watch, though he frequently gets the best lines. And Downey Jr.'s version of Sherlock Holmes lacks the charisma of virtually every other character that Downey Jr. has taken on. In other words, there is little intrigue for a franchise here.
Ultimately, Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams do nothing we haven't seen from them before and their performances are more mediocre than in any way extraordinary. It is, surprisingly, Jude Law who pulls the movie out of entirely abysmal territory. Law is able to infuse Watson with an energy that makes his own quick, calculating strikes and moves interesting to watch. While he is characteristically stiff in many scenes, he has more charisma as Watson than in many of his higher-profile roles. The part may not be the best-written, but he makes the best of it that he can and he does it sufficiently well to be watchable in his scenes.
But it is, ultimately, not enough. On DVD, Sherlock Holmes has a collection of theatrical trailers and a featurette on the how the movie holds up to the written tradition of Sherlock Holmes, but none of the participants seem terribly knowledgeable or articulate on that subject. The result is a lackluster movie that is not brought up by the bonus features and another action-adventure film which may be very safely avoided. Unfortunately, because of plot elements reminiscent of Batman Begins, one suspects that this is only the beginning of the franchise and there are more cinematic disasters from Ritchie, Downey Jr. and Law already in the works.
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© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.