The funny thing about Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film adaptation of Sherlock Holmes is that the film reminds me of the stories of a different fictitious detective rather than Arthur Conan Dole’s creation. Structurally and in terms of focus, the film seems oddly more emulative of Peter Faulk’s immortal Columbo, in that the emphasis is on watching the detective solve the case rather than the case itself. Well, Columbo, mixed with a bit of James Bond, a dash of buddy comedy, and a hint of Captain Jack Sparrow quirkiness. Together, it makes for a light, fun little film that, while not going down as a definitive interpretation of the character, is worthy of seeing in a theatre.
The film is set at a point when the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law) is undergoing change, as Watson is set to marry and work as a private doctor, leaving Holmes on his own. However, this change is delayed when it turns out their last case isn’t quite as closed as they thought: Lord Blackwell (Mark Strong), who practices dark “magic” and was caught for a series of sacrificial murders by Holmes and Watson, mysteriously disappears from his grave after his hanging. Has Blackwell returned from the dead, and if so, for what reason? Holmes and Watson race to find the answers.
The odd irony of Sherlock Holmes is that, for a film in which the titular character reminds those he works with (and hence, the viewer) of the need to pay close attention to the details, the viewer themselves really don’t need to. The film doesn’t particularly have any depth to it, mining contemporary issues of terrorism, fear and failed leadership more for exploitation’s sake, rather than exploring the issues in any depth. As for the mystery, putting aside the fact that it is mostly solvable right from the get go without any detailed clues, the important information is only doled out in a manner that allows Holmes to give a drawing room explanation of events towards the film's conclusion rather than giving an audience a chance to piece together the mystery themselves, if the mystery was hard to begin with.
However, I am hard pressed to take the film to task for these points, as the film works wonderfully as an entry in the “buddy cop” subgenre, with everything that the subgenre has become well known for: homoerotic undercurrents, playful bickering between the lead characters, and the rivalry with other officers, etc. The Victorian setting and utilization of the famed detective duo add just enough freshness to the proceedings to prevent the staleness of more recent entries in the genre, and forcing the filmmakers to get innovative with traditional elements such as the car chase and the 1980s favourite cliché, the industrial sector set fight (the factory replaced here by the boat yard).
Of course, a buddy cop film is only as great as its buddies, and the film is blessed with the talents of Downey Jr. and Law. The two share an excellent comic rapport, avoiding the pitfalls of other buddy comedies by dodging overacted moments of conflict for more restraint. Downey in particular walks the fine line between crafting a real character and going into caricature with skill, grounding his peculiarities rather than allowing them to overtake his character. Law, with the less flashy role of Watson, manages to imbue his character with more of a boyish joy than is traditionally seen with Watson. He is responsible without becoming stoic, letting the viewer in on the fact that Watson really does get a level of fun out of the situations he finds himself in.
Oddly enough, director Guy Ritchie may have found a perfect fit for his style of filmmaking with Sherlock Holmes despite his history of modern set gangster fare. While Ritchie has crafted some great films before in the gangster epics Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, his attempts at “weightier” fair have thus far fallen flat. Revolver was a fascinating mess of a film, filled with interesting ideas but little idea of how to execute them, and the less said about his remake of Swept Away, the better. While I applauded ambition, Ritchie at heart is a slick action director with a fascination with the sometimes disreputable members of British society. Sherlock Holmes, with its Victorian setting and status in popular culture, allows Ritchie to play to his strengths without indulging his lesser excesses. Even his stylistic flourishes have been toned down, giving them more impact when they do appear.
Where the film does falter to a degree is with its supporting cast of characters, few of whom are particularly fleshed out. As traditionally seems to happen with the buddy film, the female characters are pushed to the margins with little to do. Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, Holmes love interest, serves more as a plot device than as a well thought out character, which is all the more apparent when it is discovered that her reason for being in the film is to set up a potential sequel rather than functioning in the narrative of the film proper.
Still, Sherlock Holmes comes highly recommended. My one recommendation for the next outing, which looks to shoot this summer, is that they should hire Shane Black to work on the script. As anyone who has seen his film Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang can attest, the man not only knows how to write fantastic dialogue, but can craft a complex mystery with the best of them. And since he has worked with producer Joel Silver and star Robert Downey Jr. on that film, I would hardly think that it is outside the realm of possibility.