The night before screening Guy Ritchie’s stylistically brilliant rendering of Sherlock Holmes, I’d meticulously composed my list of the top ten films of the 2009, having believed that I’d seen everything that might qualify. Sherlock Holmes has forced me to reevaluate — of the ten films on my list, only one can compete with Holmes in sheer start-to-finish balls-to-the-chin entertainment value, and pure escapism, especially of the sort that’s not completely mindless, has to count for something, doesn’t it?
Robert Downey, Jr. plays Sherlock Holmes and, at the very least, is an aesthetic improvement on every other Sherlock to grace the screen (no offense to Jeremy Brett). He’s also pitch perfect for Ritchie’s film — a dry wiseacre, brooding and depressed, with the ability to use his intelligence in addition to his not-so-inconsiderable brawn. Jude Law plays his Dr. Watson, who is less a sidekick and more a charismatic equal, every bit as capable with his fists and his brains, save for a weakness for both gambling and the inviting danger of a Sherlock adventure, though he promises every case will be his last, and his fiancée, Mary, only promises to hasten their split (given their engagement, too, there was no need — as Doyle was forced to do — to create an excuse for Watson to hang out with Holmes by having Mary visiting her ill sister in every other Holmes adventure).
In the opening scenes, Holmes and Watson are hired to track down Lord Blackwood (the devilishly delightful Mark Strong), a serial killer supposedly working with black magic, who has been ritualistically killing women as part of an effort to raise awareness of his dark powers. With both his powers of deduction and a slurry of well-placed punches, Watson and Holmes reach Blackwood before he can take a sixth victim, aiding the police in the capture and imprisonment of the film’s main villain, which turns out to be the first step in Blackwood’s master plan to take control of Britain and, eventually, expand the British Empire.
Three months later, Blackwood is hanged in full view of Holmes; Watson pronounces him dead; and suddenly, the game is afoot. Blackwood somehow rises from the dead and, as he promised Holmes minutes before his execution, puts into motion the murder of three more victims - each of mysterious circumstances, hoping to culminate the plan with a takeover of the British government. Only Holmes and Watson can prevent Blackwood, and the wild care here is the criminal Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an intelligent and conniving former lover of Holmes, who seems to be playing both sides of the fence while working for a mysterious man whose face is never shown (leaving the casting choices wide open for the sequel, of course (Brad Pitt is rumored)).
To say much more about the plot would ruin the Holmes’ adventure — needless to say, as is customary in one of Arthur Conan Doyle mysteries, the script — from Simon Kinberg, Michael Robert Johnson, and Anthony Peckham — pits Blackwood’s possible supernatural conspiracy against Holmes’ powers of logic, with the added benefit of foresight, in the form of the knowledge of 20th century technological advancements. And make no mistake, though Ritchie’s frenetic and fast-paced action adventure is not exactly in line with the tone of Doyle’s mysteries, the characteristics of Doyle’s Holmes are all there - the meticulous powers of deduction, the manic-depressive tendencies, the personality disorder, and the substance abuse problems, though Downey’s Holmes is more vigorous than academic’ still, Ritchie’s version keeps in line with the evolving nature of Holmes over the 20th century. More importantly, most skeptical Holmes’ aficionados will likely be converted, if only because of the script’s attention to detail and the way it incorporates so many of the elements of Doyle’s novels into the movie, from Holmes’ obscure interest in the violin, alchemy, and firearms, to the Irene Adler character, the Jersey girl who resurfaced in several of Doyle’s books and was only one of a few people who ever got the better of Holmes (and was one of only two (?) characters that brought out something other than Holmes’ asexual side). Ironically, even the black magic elements of the plot are keeping in line with Doyle, who turned to writing about the occult after he stopped writing Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries.
More importantly, the relationship between Holmes and Watson is as strong and well-developed as it is in Doyle’s novels, and it is their bond that drives the narrative. It feels, at times, like a bromantic comedy of remarriage, but the Apatow bromantic couples have nothing on Holmes and Watson, whose friendship is warm and alive and real — there’s very much an old school Newman and Redford dynamic between the two. Plot-wise, Sherlock Holmes is something akin to one of Doyle’s mysteries crossed with Lethal Weapon, and Downey’s Holmes is not too far removed from Mel Gibson’s Riggs, a comparison highlighted by the hilariously hyper Three-Stooges brand of fight scenes. The mystery itself is far more compelling than the solution, but the wrap-up deftly toes the line between clever and bullshit, close enough to the former to be satisfying and tied up hastily enough to keep you from stewing on the latter. Indeed, there’s not enough time to poke holes in Holmes’ logic before the narrative quickly sets up the sequel, leaving you contemplating the future of Sherlock Holmes rather than going over the logic of what you’ve just seen.
So, is Sherlock Holmes good enough to be a top ten film of the year? Not quite. For all the fun I had watching Sherlock Holmes, there’s none of the emotional resonance that epitomizes most of the other films on my list. Sherlock Holmes is fast-paced (saved for a small dead spot in the second act) and amusing as hell, but at the end of the day, it still feels a little frivolous. Though it’s far from mechanical - it’s the best thing that Guy Ritchie has done since Lock, Stock, and Two Barrels, and does not, for the first time, borrow heavily from his debut film (the lack of Matthew Vaughn is a boon here, not because Vaughn isn’t kick-ass, but because his sensibilities don’t suit the subject material) — it still lacks emotional heft. And unlike another certain action-adventure sci-fi spectacle from earlier this year, there are no moments of levity in Sherlock Holmes, nor any real heart. The only emotional connection I had with the film was the built-in one I have with Downey. It’s a buddy comedy, and for all the stylistic flourishes; the brilliant quips; the impeccable costumes and set design; the smart and faithful (but somewhat empty) script; the fantastic performances from Downey and Law (McAdams is somewhat lacking); and the escapist adventure, Sherlock Holmes still feels a little frivolous. It’s an event film - it will keep you completely enraptured from the opening scene until the last and Ritchie does an excellent job of keeping the momentum going, but it won’t stick with you long after you’ve left the theater. Sherlock Holmes is a very good film, but it’s not a great one, but that doesn’t make me any less enthused for the sequel.