Robert Downey Jr. moves into 221b Baker Street and makes himself at home – quaffing sherry, waxing deductive, plucking violin strings, verbally jousting with his homey Dr Watson and generally kitting up Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic literary detective with new found cool in Sherlock Holmes, the latest snazzy action pic from British director Guy “Lock Stock” Ritchie.
The film’s ka-pow! action trailer suggests the superlative sleuth has lost his brain and swapped it for brawn, which turns out to be partly true: Ritchie juices up the Holmes legend by adding fighting skills to his playbook but keeps his intellect more or less intact.
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True to form, Ritchie’s movie concludes with an explanatory ah-ha! ramble in which Holmes pinpoints who did what, how they did it and why we’re all daft for not figuring it out ourselves. We would expect nothing less, but for reasons that cannot be disclosed in this review (no spoilers, promise) Ritchie cheats the rules, using Holme’s logic not just to solve a mystery but to shift the parameters in which the story took place. In other words, Ritchie goes for a last minute attempt to legitimise a film stuffed full of nonsense by offering more of the same and tries his darndest to get away with it. The inimitable Judge Judy has an adage to describe this sort of hocus: “don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.”
The story of Sherlock Holmes is cloaked in supernatural elements revolving around the return from the grave of serial killer and all around nasty pastie Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who is caught by Holmes and Watson in the opening reel and sentenced to hang. His last words are “death is just the beginning” and Blackwood then returns to kill another three victims, the corpse in his coffin replaced with that of a young girl. Holmes and Watson are sent in to investigate and before you can say “the game is afoot” they’re embroiled in an elaborate plot for (nothing short of) world domination. Rather than a smaller, more nuanced mystery that escalates gradually into something large and all-encompassing – from a murder, to a cluster of murders, to a wide-reaching conspiracy etc – the story starts off big and gets bigger, all the way to a silly by-the-numbers action conclusion set in an outrageously vertiginous location.
There are some nifty time manipulations in the first act, as we watch Holmes perfectly predict a fight – i.e. where he will land the first punch, how much it’s going to hurt and how many ribs will be cracked – but Ritchie ditches these flourishes early on and never brings them back, not even for the finale.
Downey Jr. and Law are each strong as H & W, the off-kilter genius and the tightly wound pragmatist, though their portrayals blend into each other: you might as well call them Dr. John Holmes and Sherlock Watson. Rachel McAdams is expendable as Holme’s feisty love interest, starting as a headstrong anti-heroine before plummeting unceremoniously downwards to damsel in distress status.
Guy Ritchie ambitiously attempts a genre mish-mash along the lines of 2008’s Hot Fuzz, which was also a comedy, an action flick, a whodunit and a pseudo supernatural mystery, but doesn’t get the balance right. As an action pic Sherlock Holmes is slow, clunky and sporadic; as a comedy it’s meek, inconsistent and easily distracted. It is not a whodunit by any means (we know who the villain is from the start) and the supernatural elements are annoyingly illogical, running against the grain of Holme’s trademark powers of reasoning. Worse, the story is shambolic. It feels very much make-it-up-as-you-go, like a Choose Your Own Adventure that doesn’t work out quite right, and, worst of all, it bores.
However, Sherlock Holmes is a rare breed of movie for which a sequel seems perfectly legitimate from a creative POV. If Ritchie keeps the cast and regigs the format, tightening the plot and sharpening the pace, there’s potential for sassier, edgier and smarter Sherlock stories. To trump this one, they’ll need to be.
Sherlock Holmes’s Australian theatrical release date: December 26, 2009