If we can transport ourselves back about six years when Sherlock Holmes was still a stuffy, cocaine-abusing gentleman detective, you’ll remember that this was the film that put him back into the pop culture conversation. Brash, bruising, and indeed brilliant, here was a sleuth for our era, if ours is one where men prove themselves best with brain and brawn. But that was before the Sherlock renaissance, which this film helped birth, and since then, the popular self-titled BBC series as well as CBS’s Elementary have opted for a less pugilistic approach. Still, the common thread is a modern understanding of the character and a desire to divorce him from the long-held image of a tweedy, pipe-smoking intellectual.
And on that count, director Guy Ritchie succeeds. I can’t say I’ve seen anything in the Ritchie oeuvre, unless we’re counting a music video he directed for his then-wife, Madonna, but from what I gather, Sherlock Holmes seems to have all the hallmarks of one of his films. Men, and it’s a man’s world, prove themselves by throwing punches – the more bare-knuckled, the better, and intelligence is best appreciated in a state of action. Everything here moves at high velocity; even in this horse and carriage world, leisure is so last century. And not a deerstalker in sight.
I wouldn’t say the frenetic pace works but it does match the plot, which includes a bit of ghost hunting. Sherlock (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) involve themselves in the case of Lord Blackburn (Mark Strong), who is convicted and hanged for the ritualistic murders of several women. His reappearance in human form, however, has everyone spooked, and it’s not just the police who are after him but some high-ranking political leaders with an interest in the occult as well.
A restless Sherlock bullies Watson into helping him solve the mystery. The good doctor is trying to win over fair Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) by showing off his gentler, more domestic side, but he reverts to the natural male state when he’s chasing and clubbing goons. And just so we’re clear on the varying shades of masculinity, Lestrade (a bulldog-like Eddie Marsan) represents a less refined option, often reverting to brute force to make up for his lack of actual policing skills. Sherlock’s nemesis/love interest, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) does double duty as the hot chick and clever girl with an agenda, but McAdams plays it with a lighter touch, and her character doesn’t have the sexual and intellectual potency of the more recent television incarnations.
Ritchie’s high-octane vision gives the story a thrilling kick. Downey, Jr.’s animalism and Law’s restraint complement each other well even if their accents don’t, and it’s not just a reimagining of Sherlock but of the English detective mystery genre. The director lays out an inspired Victorian England, one where science and empire building converge and where human endeavor and fear coexist in the most extreme forms. But too often the action masks rather than aids character and plot, leaving little room to digest the story. A lot of time is spent avoiding moving projectiles, and that’s fine if that’s the film you’re looking for.
But Ritchie seems to want to harness something more. The idea that Victorians viewed their era as modern in the same way that we see our own is an exciting one and a perspective that BBC’s Ripper Street explores with much more nuance and daring. That show directly borrows from the aesthetic of Sherlock but digs far deeper, until it is elbows deep in sludge, both moral and literal. And whereas Ripper Street manages to put the past into the present, this film doesn’t quite make it beyond mere imitation. There are jokes about science and new technology – someone mistakes an electrical cattle prod for magic, for example – and the climactic fight is waged on an imposing and unfinished Tower Bridge, but it never goes beyond the limits of a highly charged costume drama, even if it’s a fun one.
Prod: Joel Silver, Lionel Wigram, Susan Downey, Dan Lin
Dir: Guy Ritchie
Writer: Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Mark Strong, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly, Eddie Marsan, Hans Matheson, Geraldine James, James Fox, Robert Maillet, William Hope, William Houston
Time: 128 min
Country: United Kingdom