A handsome cab clatters through the cobblestone streets of Victorian London at night. Inside, renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his faithful assistant Dr. Watson (Jude Law) prepare to bring another case to a close. In this instance, they apprehend Lord Blackwood (Marc Strong) for the occult-fueled murders of four women, rescuing a fifth before a sacrificial knife is plunged in to her. Following his trial and death sentence, Blackwood promises to return from the dead, a claim that Holmes and Watson scoff at, especially when Watson, as attending physician at Blackwood’s hanging, pronounces him dead. Months later, Blackwood has apparently risen from his grave and Holmes and Watson must race to discover how he managed such a feat and what his resurrection portends.
I don’t claim to be conversant in the complete canon of Sherlock Holmes stories penned by Arthur Conan Doyle. But I have seen a majority of the Great Detective’s English-speaking cinematic adventures and I would say that the ones that work best are the ones that attempt to flesh out the character of Holmes a bit further than the seemingly emotionless, calculating detective as present by Doyle. Some fans decry some of these films for veering too far from Doyle’s original intent, but I think a case could be made that since the stories are written in the first person by Holmes’s close friend, Dr. J. Watson (James or John, Doyle never had that detail satisfactorily nailed down), he could be considered an unreliable narrator, glossing over details about Holmes that he may have felt did not present him in the best of light to his Victorian readers.
Granted there will be some fans who will decry the film’s portrayal of Holmes as someone who will occasional resort to brawn in addition to brains. However, film is a visual medium and much better suited to illuminating the side of Holmes that even Conan Doyle/Watson described in “A Study In Scarlet” as an “expert boxer and swordsman.” There is not much great cinema to be found in long shots of a brow-furrowed Holmes pondering long and hard over a “three-pipe problem.” That is not to say that the intellectual side of Holmes is neglected here. Director Guy Ritchie, who cut his teeth on the visually stylish crime dramas Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, uses his signatory visual flourishes of sudden slow-motion and speed ramps to illustrate Holmes’s powers of observation and deduction. This works better than having Holmes explaining things to Watson or some other convenient person standing by after the fact.
Robert Downey Jr. turns in an exciting and full-formed performance as Holmes, capturing both the single-minded focus of the detective when he is on a case and the near panic and depression that grip him between cases when he has no puzzle to which he can turn his intellect. As his counter-balance, right-hand man and best friend, Jude Law does an equally good job in the role of Dr. Watson. Thankfully, the script has written the doctor with intelligence, hopefully finally ridding the public of the image of Watson-as-bumbler as portrayed by Nigel Bruce when he played the role opposite Basil Rathbone’s Holmes in the 1930s and `40s. To accentuate the importance of their friendship, the script has it at a crisis point. After years of sharing quarters at the famous 221B Baker Street, Watson has become engaged to be married and is preparing to move out. This has thrown Holmes for a loop, as he has come to depend on Watson’s help during his cases and perhaps to keep him sane between them. There’s definitely a bromance between the two and Holmes is jealous of Watson’s fiancé coming between them and the possibility of sharing future adventures together. Downey and Law play the scenes for all their worth, finding just the right light-hearted tone.
If the movie is guilty of anything, it is for trying to do too much. In the original stories, Irene Adler was the one woman who could engage Holmes on an intellectual level, the only level on which he could be engaged. Here, the film suggests that there was much more to that relationship – again, Watson has been an unreliable, though discreet, narrator – and her return does throw Holmes for a bit of a loop. Irene, however, is working at cross-purposes to Holmes and the revelations as to why and for whom is clearly a set-up for a sequel. While Rachel MacAdams does good work making the interplay between her character and Downey’s Holmes flirty and fun, but since there’s no ultimate payoff to her story arc, it only can be seen as something that clutters the movie to a degree, especially during the film’s middle third.