The most entertaining blockbuster of the year arrives in theatres five days before the year ends (Somewhat salvaging an otherwise dismal year for mainstream films). Modernized and re-envisioned, I was suspect of this film from the first few pictures they released of it. To my surprise, this is a muscular retelling of Holmes that is part Scooby Doo (I’ll explain), part The Prestige, and part Lethal Weapon, all filtered through the masculine vision of Guy Ritchie. Despite falling into a couple setbacks, Sherlock Holmes attains that rare status for a blockbuster film; pleasure for the mind, pleasure for the eyes, and no guilt the morning after.
The center of the film is the incredible performance of Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. Downey gives the most enjoyable and nuanced performance of a blockbuster hero since Depps’ Captain Jack Sparrow first waded upon shore. Forget Iron Man’s Tony Stark, Holmes is the jerk to love and root for. Despite his incredible skill and wit, Holmes is a fighter, gambler, and depressed addict that is generally unlikable when he’s not ‘on the case’. So what makes him enjoyable?
He is enjoyable here because the film makes no apologies for his character and isn’t afraid at showing the loneliness that stems from it. See a scene in which Holmes deduces some rather hurtful information about Watson’s fiancé, hurting her feelings and causing her to leave. A lesser film would’ve made her the object of laughter, a stuck up prude exposed by our hero. Here she’s appropriately the victim and we see the ‘warts and all’ side of Holmes. As entertaining as his deducing and fighting is, I find myself even more interested in how Holmes develops and overcomes his obvious flaws.
Downey is matched by Jude Law as Watson. Like Lethal Weapons’ Murtaugh and Riggs, both Holmes and Watson are up for a fight. Just like Glover’s Murtaugh, Law’s Watson provides the balancing effect with a call for Holmes to settle in and civilize. They are a fun match and like Lethal Weapon, the script really allows them to play off one another and run wild in their respective environments.
That environment is an interesting amalgam of a Scooby Doo (“that wasn’t a ghost, just a projector”) storyline set in the grimy London of The Prestige. Pairing a ‘supernatural vs. natural’ storyline with coming of industrial age London feels inspired within a Sherlock Holmes film that is all about reason, logic, and deduction. Like The Prestige, the pairings ask inherent questions about how a world of religion, mystery and the supernatural will exist in a world of widening scientific explanation, logic, and mechanization. It’s there to glean, but Sherlock Holmes unfortunately doesn’t delve too deep in that pool, whereas The Prestige gleans great wisdom from the tragic intersections of magic, the supernatural, science, and man's nature.
Here of course, Holmes’ deduction is infallible and victorious, but I wonder if the sequels will explore the limits to such an approach. Over reliance on deductions made about little details, while they make for fun banter and revelations, are not fool proof and require much faith in its methods. One last note I’d like to make about the science vs. faith/religion subtext in the film, but it will involve some details you might not want to read. If so, just skip the next paragraph two paragraphs.
A note should be made here that it’s possible for people to read an anti-religious and anti-Christian bent to this film. In fact, by the end of the film, Holmes has explained away the supernatural resurrection of a religious figure that then makes appearances to his followers (who drink a cup to pledge their allegiance) and to outsiders, doing supernatural ‘miracles’. This figure and his followers were then going to use this supernatural power to strike fear in to the hearts of the masses to control them. A cynic, or someone with half a brain, can make the connection to Jesus Christ and the claims made about his followers.
While it’s possible the writers intended it this way, it doesn’t alarm me, nor bother me in the least, and I hope it doesn’t for you. While it’s possibly a more direct and damaging attack on religion than any messages about ‘humans’ found in Avatar; it’s also infinitely more intelligent and honest. There are no one-sided caricatured Christians here nor are there any obvious and on the nose quotes made to draw direct parallels with Jesus or religious leaders (“fight terror with terror” and “shock and awe” are achingly bad from Avatar). In fact, when asked by Watson early in the film that Lord Blackwood’s resurrection could have a supernatural explanation, Holmes responds that it is possible; just that they shouldn’t buy it until all the facts have been discovered. What a refreshing viewpoint for a major Hollywood film.
Also refreshing is that we are allowed to watch a blockbuster without having to filter it through the eyes of a ‘Shia Lebouf’ like teenager. Essentially, these are adults taking on adult tasks in an adult world. The banter is primarily intelligent, the action brutal (Ritchie shoots ‘fights’ in much the same fashion as he did in Snatch), and the storyline rich in subtext. That’s not to say it didn’t have its faults. I’ll say a small word about those now.
In an otherwise perfect cast, Rachel McAdams is ill-placed and ill developed. Besides moving a plot forward and adding some weakness to Holmes himself (two admittedly important jobs), McAdams fizzles next to Downey and Law. Saddled with playing American (New Jersey to boot!), her accent and role just fall flat. Sherlock Holmes also suffers from a predictable and routine middle section with Holmes exploring and then subsequently being rescued by a ‘just behind’ police force. Included is a ‘heroine in distress’ action sequence in a slaughterhouse that comes straight out of a 'what might’ve been' version of this film. Thankfully, that version is unseen the rest of the film.
Sherlock Holmes is a solid blockbuster that falters a bit in the middle, but is nonetheless is as refreshing and entertaining as anything put out by the major studios all year. When was the last time that you could say a Hollywood blockbuster was seemingly made for adults with adults themes and stars, entertains in spades, and yet is suitable for almost the whole family? The true test about the success of this film and it's re-envisioned world is whether or not I’d want to see anymore of it. To that question I answer with an easy "Yes". A great foundation has been laid here, and I’m excited to see what adversaries and mysteries lay in store next for these characters. As Holmes himself might say, “The game is afoot”.