When it was announced that Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels director Guy Ritchie was going to be directing a new take on the classic detective character of Sherlock Holmes, it didn't exactly strike me as a perfect match. The hyper-stylish visuals, convoluted plots, and quick witted, often swear-filled dialogue found in Ritchie's movies isn't what Sherlock Holmes has been all about. So needless to say I was dubious about the project.
But then came the news that Robert Downey Jr. had signed on to play Holmes, and my anticipation and trust in the project suddenly heightened. So how has it turned out? Well, it's not exactly perfect (far from it, actually), but thanks to the trademark charisma of Downey Jr., the competent support from Jude Law as Holmes's faithful assistant, Dr. Watson, and Mark Strong as an adequately intimidating villain, Ritchie's take on Sherlock Holmes is fun, feeling simultaneously fresh yet respecting the source character entirely.
It's just a shame, then, that there's more problems with it than one would like, resulting in an enjoyable, almost throwaway film instead of one that makes a long-term impression and solidifies itself as one of the takes on the character.
The plot of what is sure to be the first of a new series of Holmes tales sees Mark Strong as villain Lord Blackwood, a power-hungry man sentenced to death near the beginning of the story. On the case of catching him is Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson, who are surprised to find that he has risen from the dead after being hung. So the game is afoot as Holmes and Watson set out to find out how this is possible and what Blackwood is now up to, all the while having to deal with the law, as well as Irene Adler, a mischievous figure from Holmes's past.
Unfortunately, the plot is just where the film falters the greatest in that you don't really care about it. Since this is our first introduction to this new incarnation of Holmes, our concentration is always on the characters and their interactions rather than trying to keep up with the barely sensible plot. This is in part down to the script, which feels underwritten, evidenced by certain plot elements that are introduced and then glazed over or rushed by in order to get onto the next thing.
Luckily, Downey Jr. is well cast as Holmes, giving a new lease on life to the classic character with wit, charm, and instant likability (not to mention absolutely nailing the British accent). This allows us to relate to him whilst he's trying to solve the mystery of how Lord Blackwood came back to life, for instance, even if we don't particularly care about the mystery in and of itself. Law is surprisingly suited to his role too (something which I didn't think would be the case when I heard he'd be playing the character), bringing a sort of nervous counterbalance to Holmes's blasé attitude.
As I said, Strong plays a very good villain, intimidating and even scary at times, yet with a certain charisma about him, although a different type than Downey Jr. He was always an actor I thought was vastly underrated, and I'm glad, what with some of the big roles he's been getting as of late, he's finally getting his due. The weak link in the chain is Rachel McAdams as the inevitable love interest of the film. She doesn't give a bad performance – actually she fills the role more than adequately – but the character isn't that well written, and seems just to function as eye candy and as even more of a counterpoint to Holmes than Watson.
One of the major things introduced in this take on the character which has gone largely ignored before is Holmes's martial arts skill. Although not explored fully here, the film is nonetheless filled with action sequences, a lot of which are hand-to-hand combat involving Holmes. Most of them have some sort of stylish slow-motion thrown in by Ritchie, something which sometimes works tremendously well whilst at other times just becomes annoying. The addition of action will no doubt make it appeal to a wider audience, but those used to a less physical Holmes might be a bit jarred by it.
Other than the fact that Ritchie's directing is less than imaginative (although an argument could be made it doesn't need to be), another major problem is related to the plot issues in that the resolution feels like it cheats the audience. I won't give anything away but let's just say major things are kept from the audience, not in a way where you "click" right at the end with everything that's happened, but rather it gets wrapped up rather conveniently with an explanation that feels neither satisfactory nor fair.
But all the problems aside with Sherlock Holmes, I still found it to be an enjoyable film with some great performances, particularly from Downey Jr. and Law, an effective villain, and some great banter between the characters. The film seriously sets up the potential for more movies, in particular the nod of the head to a certain classic foe of Holmes, and hopefully with practise, Ritchie can improve on what's he's done here and flesh things out a bit more the next time around. A thumbs up nonetheless, though.