Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review: "Sherlock Holmes"

"Sherlock Holmes" at least has the good manners to be honest about its intentions: It's an amped-up, action-packed take on the iconic British detective, with calm deductive reasoning and deerstalker hats jettisoned for lots of science nerd tech-talk, slo-mo explosions and knife fights.
It's "CSI: Victorian Age."

Guy Ritchie brings his distinctive feverish directing style to the Industrial Age crime procedural. Robert Downey Jr., as Holmes, likes to go about bare-chested and relishes getting into brawls, so he can map out his bone-crunching moves beforehand -- thus, we get to see his fights twice, first in slow time and then sped up.

This version of Holmes also possesses observational powers that border on superhuman; after a brief glance at a person, he can tell you everything about them from their occupation to their progeny. He can discern exact chemical compositions from odor or taste.

I don't necessarily object to this modernized version of Sherlock Holmes -- the conception of the sleuth as a charming gentleman, best exemplified by actor Basil Rathbone in a swath of midcentury films, had grown rather quaint. And Holmes' knowledge of martial arts and boxing are part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories.

But Ritchie, Downey and a slew of writers seem so intent on branding their Holmes a bold departure, they forget to assemble a believable character.

Downey plays the detective as an obsessive scoundrel, who when he's not solving crimes goes into extended periods of torpor and pharmacological experimentation. The actor uses a clipped delivery designed to mask a middling British accent.

Jude Law plays Dr. Watson, Holmes' right-hand man and best friend. As the story opens, Watson is leaving their shared house and partnership to settle down with an eligible lady (Kelly Reilly), so there's a bit of tension between them.

Holmes' own romantic entanglement arrives in the form of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the only criminal ever to give Holmes the slip -- twice. She and Holmes play a cat-and-mouse game of one-upmanship, with Irene's exact loyalties in doubt.

The plot is an utterly forgettable mishmash of black magic and science, with the mysterious Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) as the bogeyman. The story opens with Holmes and Watson catching Blackwood in the act of a dark sacrificial ritual, but he somehow survives his hanging execution to wreak havoc on London.

His plan is to enlist the aid of the Temple of the Four Orders, a variation on the old Masonic legends, in taking over the world.

The action scenes are quite a lot of fun, if a bit hard to follow at times. I especially liked Holmes' facing off with a giant French thug who actually gets to spout better one-liners than the hero.
This new "Sherlock Holmes" strives desperately to be new and fresh, and the strain of the effort shows.

2.5 stars


  1. Thanks for the review. We're having a Sherlockian film critic on I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere next week for his take on the film. Overall, reviews seem mixed, so it'll be interesting to see how he takes it. My guess is that it'll be similar to yours.

    Scott Monty, BSI
    The Baker Street Irregulars

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Scott. Sounds like a cool site; I'll have to check it out.