Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes is a character that everyone knows. He has survived for well over a century now, and has been re-imagined in various books, television shows, and films. The latest cinematic interpretation of this beloved character comes from Guy Ritchie, well known for his British crime films such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. The fact that Ritchie is known for films that are fast-paced and action-packed, and that Holmes is a detective who is praised mostly for his intelligence and logic, should raise a few concerns to anyone familiar with both figures. Indeed, the pairing ends up being unsuitable, and the result is a mildly entertaining but mostly forgettable adventure film.

The movie follows Holmes and his trusty sidekick Watson as they examine the case of Lord Blackwood, a villain that they begin the movie with by capturing but who appears to have risen from the dead. Amidst all this chaos is the threat of Watson’s fiance stealing his services away from Holmes, as well as a femme fatale that has a special and not entirely sexual relationship with the famous detective.

Holmes is re-envisioned for this film. Ritchie makes it very clear that this Holmes is still very deductive and intelligent, but that he has translated these intellectual skills into brawn. In two of the better sequences, Holmes plans out his movements in a fight and then executes them perfectly, allowing the audience to see exactly how Holmes determined he would kick that guy’s ass. Unfortunately, save for a few requisite instances of Holmes filling everyone else in with small but apparently sufficient clues, the rest of the movie just features Sherlock as a fighter and not a thinker. Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories might be disappointed with the lack of fidelity here, but of course, much of the movie-going audience doesn’t bother with literature anymore and will probably be more pleased with this action-packed hot wired version of the super sleuth.

The lead actors is what makes this film somewhat enjoyable. Robert Downey, Jr. fits into the title role easily, especially with the bare knuckle brawling reincarnation. As a man who has struggled with his own addictions in the past, I was hoping that Downey’s Holmes might at least be faithful in the fact that he was a cocaine addict. Unfortunately, the closest Ritchie comes to this is a scene showing that Holmes is apparently a severe boozer (something I’m not sure a real detective would be able to support). The scene probably conveys the proper sense of unkempt problematic drug use, with Jude Law’s Watson having to pick up the intoxicated pieces of Holmes, but it still cheats by using the legal drug instead of the real deal (shouldn’t be that big of a deal, really, since cocaine was legal in these times).

Jude Law also works well as a more mature and straight-edged Watson. Many people have said that the chemistry between the two leads is the film’s saving grace, and that it plays out like some sort of “bromance”. This is true, and their banter and playful interactions should be enough to entertain even the most jaded Doyle fan whose hopes for the picture have shattered by the end of the first sequence.

The rest of the cast is disappointing. Mark Strong plays the most bored-looking villain I’ve seen in quite a while. Sometimes he seemed really severe, but most of the time it seemed like his eyes were on the verge of glazing over as he recited his cringingly bad dialogue. Rachel McAdams was entirely unnecessary. I’m convinced that her character was only there to serve two low purposes: sex appeal and sequel set-up.

The best sequences in the film are the action scenes, but really, they’re all so loosely tied together that sometimes you forget how they started or what the stakes are. The 19th Century English setting is really well-done, and is a good use of CGI in this film – a lot of the dangers and obstacles during the action sequences are an equally weighted bad use.

Most of all, the film just isn’t intelligent enough for its subject. Running around in tunnels beneath Parliament, somehow our characters come out on top of a huge London bridge under construction for the mediocre climax. And while Holmes may be privy to the cognitive biases that ruin most peoples’ perceptions and ideas, his observation skills are explained here as being the result of a sort of supersensitivity to sight and sound. I’m not sure how to feel about that decision, but I do know that I wish the character had done a bit less ass-kicking and a lot more thinking. This is a character that is so awesome because of his relentless faith in science and logic, but Ritchie has turned him into just another Hollywood action hero. As Downey Jr. says in the film, “Crime is common, logic is rare”. Apparently too rare, for it seems to be missing from this standard action adventure fare.

Final rating: 6/10

–James A. Janisse

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