Matt Holmes takes on SHERLOCK HOLMES!

Sherlock Holmes is Guy Ritchie at his quietest, most frivolous and thankfully, agreeably tolerable.

rating: 3

Sherlock Holmes is Guy Ritchie at his quietest, most frivolous and thankfully, agreeably tolerable. It's by far his most fully realised film and working within an $80 million Warner Bros budget, where he has to play by the rules and can't indulge on his own tastebuds, has resulted in by far his best picture. There's no prodding sub-plots here and no cockney geezers (the most we get is a "HELLO HELLO" from the always great Eddie Marsan!). The Ritchie gimmickry is toned down and when it is used, it is to serve a purpose, i.e. a couple of uses of slow motion are apt to the storytelling and character building. The playing of fractured time, so often Ritchie's narrative downfall is present but actually makes sense here. Ritchie has either matured or taken his lack recent lack of popularity to heart, and the result is a Sherlock Holmes that is a fairly light-hearted two hour piece of Sunday afternoon entertainment that will prove to be compulsively watched for t.v. re-runs, much like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Is this the career Guy Ritchie wanted all along or has he just gave up trying to be the British answer to Quentin Tarantino? Nevermind that I suppose, it's a welcome change. For once, Guy Ritchie might be the quietest element of his own picture. This is Robert Downey Jr's movie, and Ritchie is more than happy to just give the ball to him and let him run with it. Downey Jr, still fresh enough as a Hollywood lead to play such an iconic character (though I do think Lestat might be one to far for him, if that ever gets off the ground), brings a great charm and more versatility to the role than any previous incarnation. He is also more complex and actually has demons that plague his world, another dimension to the character that I don't believe any of the actors who have played the character previous have ever been asked to pull off. Sure, Downey Jr. exuberates with the cerebral energy of Holmes, he does all the things we need a man of such high intelligence like Sherlock Holmes character to do but here he is also... ...part narcissist, selfish, he is self-destructive, he doesn't get along with people, he doesn't take care himself (he is depicted as being messy and without hygiene) and he relies so much on his partner in crime, the good Dr. Watson (Jude Law) to keep him from falling into insanity when he hasn't got a complex case to keep his mind occupied. But Watson has found himself a lover, and they are to be married and he will move out on Holmes, and he can't stand it for one second. Holmes & Watson bicker like an old couple but their chemistry with each other, a kind of un-subtle homo-erotic blood brothers type thing brings a Lethal Weapon element to this 19th century tale, and I really enjoyed their back-and-forth banter. It's Downey Jr's movie for sure, but Law is the steady element that keeps the pieces together with humanity and a rigid sense to find the truth. One of the movie's strong points is it's opening sequence. Sherlock Holmes begins where many a superhero/detective movie ends, and not since Raiders of the Lost Ark have we been invited to start with such a fully formed character in the midst of a case. The count dracula style Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) is about to murder his sixth known victim but Holmes & Watson are in the climax of solving their case. It's a fast-paced, exciting few minutes and just goes to show that this kind of 'drop you right in the action' is the best way to introduce a larger than life character. Ritchie's Holmes almost gets rid of the need for an origin movie and shows how to cut off the fat. I wish more new franchises would begin like this. Blackwood is sentenced to hang, which he does but when he seems to be conjuring up evil acts from the grave, the real juicy bits of the movie begins and the case that Holmes had previously thought was closed, has really only just begun. By now I probably don't need to tell you how good Mark Strong is. He's one of the best screen villains we have, and never goes the obvious route with his characters. Never hammy, never moustache twirling. I keep saying he's Hollywood's best kept secret but I guess with the roles he's getting right now, he's not. We got Robin Hood and Kick-Ass to see him provide more villainy next year. Like most Sherlock Holmes movies, the plot from there gets a little convoluted and incoherent (a Holmes plot has by definition gotta be over-complicated so the super sleuth can wow us with his observational and deductive reasoning skills in the final reel) and it really is a case that if you switch off you might miss something but it's never boring or uninteresting. It gets a little crazy at times but if you stick with it, you know Holmes will tie it all together by the time the final reel comes into play. Sadly, I didn't really understand the point in Rachel McAdams' feisty Irene Adler character, the one girl who broke Holmes' heart but is also an accomplished thief. If anything, her limited screentime probably meant she became victim of the cutting room floor but as far as I can tell, she was there to make sense of the seeds that were being planted for a Professor Moriarty appearance as the main villain of the series in the sequel. Another problem I had was with the special effects that were a little see-through, especially with the ridiculous finale on the half built Tower Bridge. More money spent on the climax seemed to be needed but all in all, the cinematographer Philippe Rousselot gave the streets of London a dirty, murky feel and a certain edginess about it that is a step forward from recent attempts like Sweeney Todd and before that, From Hell in capturing the industrial expansion of Victorian London. Going by the dozen or so books and screen adaptations of Sherlock Holmes I have read/seen, my final deliberation on the facts presented to me is that the Baker Street super sleuthas depicted by Guy Ritchie is as faithful a story to the Arthur Conan Doyle creation as the new James Bond franchise is to Ian Fleming's early 007 novels, or the Bourne film series is to Robert Ludlum. So loosen that hang-up you may have on this not being your grandfather's Holmes, because with a little ratiocinative, you will find this really isn't all that different. For a start, depicting Holmes as a fighter and littering the movie with a couple of action scenes isn't the controversial choice that I guess many have suggested. The way it's handled is actually quite clever and probably makes more sense than a Holmes who can't look after himself. A smart man who is willing enough to put his neck on the line in such dangerous situations would have forced himself to learn the arts of self defense, no doubt. And it's not like he's a Superman, Ritchie makes this clear. A couple of times in the movie we see him in a desperate situation and Ritchie slows the whole sequence down and we see Holmes deliberate on how he is to take his opponent down and win the situation. He knows every tendon of his victim he wishes to break, every ounce of physical pain he can deliver and when Ritchie returns to real time action, we see him Holmes accomplish this. This isn't a superhero. This is someone who knows how to use his brain to supplement his limited brawn. Many a Holmes adaptation had the detective depicted as being more than physically capable enough of taking down a villain during the showdown scene, and I'm pretty certain that a brutal fight on top of a waterfall sealed Professor Moriarty's doom. So all this is fine. Then there's the occult stuff which many have trigger-happily turned to as being a problem with this new adaptation. But really, Doyle's novels were written as mystery detective yarns and they dealt with the fantastical and the macabre on a regular basis. We would be reminiscent at this point if we didn't mention that Doyle himself, despite creating the most legendary fictional character of impeccable scientific reasonings, was astonishingly a believer in ghostly spirits and became rather obsessed with the topic. Doyle became a believer in the afterlife after attending a seance during the publication year of his first Sherlock Holmes novel. The most famous Holmes novel is The Hound of the Baskervilles, and of course that tale famously delved into pulp/supernatural world in a Scooby Doo kind of way, which this movie does. So the supernatural hokum that is present in the new movie is welcomed by me. It's deftly handled too, and although you don't actually need to have the observational skills of a detective to see where it's heading, I can imagine this PG-13 Guy Ritchie movie playing well with a young audience too. This isn't the mostly tedious Holmes movies that make you track down that remote. So if you strip away the sexiness that Robert Downey Jr. brings to the role and it's not as over-played as I expected going into it (one scene really, the naked "key" release broad comedic moment), then it's a pretty faithful Sherlock Holmes movie by the finale anyway, I'd say. Much more interesting than the stuffy t.v. adaptations of the last twenty years and not a lot of divergence for anyone to get worked up over. Good, so we have settled this this isn't as far out a depiction of Holmes as you may have thought. And at the end of the day, if it is different (which it isn't), then what is it different from? The last Sherlock Holmes movie to open in the U.S. theatres was TWENTY ONE years ago and God, the thought of sitting through those British t.v. adaptations? YAWN. What you thought of Holmes, the pipe wrench, the stiff upper-lip, elementary my Dear Watson and all that. It was just surface level stuff. Delve deeper and this feels right.
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Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.