Pop culture’s most enduring sleuth gets a welcome, modernized makeover in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, which wisely retains the character’s core, brain-over-brawn elements while discarding pipe-puffing pacing in favor of a breakneck tempo, drawing room-scale intrigue in favor of international conspiracy, and fog-swept locales in favor of bare-knuckled boxing pits. There’s enough wit in the meticulous upgrading of this century-old icon to make one wish the effort was matched by a script tailored to truly serve the film’s innately likable actors, who unfortunately get only fleeting moments of cheeky interplay amid a surfeit of the director’s trademark, berserker action beats. The intriguing, brotherly dynamic between the existentially unsatisfied Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and the fastidious, newly-engaged Watson (Jude Law) is what suffers most as a result of the relentless, pedal-down momentum, though Ritchie’s restless camera frequently allows us to soak in his industrial-gray, graphic novelized Victorian London, a fully realized, immersive location populated by all manner of sooty grotesques and riddled with Masonic plots against Queen and country (as well as America, for good measure).
The rebooted Holmes, shorn of his traditional deerstalker cap and Inverness cape, as well as his gentlemanly gentility, is endowed more or less with the persona one imagines Downey Jr. taking on during a particularly intense game of Boggle: stone-faced concentration, ramrod posture, and occasionally darting eyes that betray the mental calisthenics underway. Holmes’s famed deductive powers, employed throughout to unravel the grand scheme of Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a black magician-baddie who is mysteriously seen cropping up throughout the film despite being hanged at its outset, are more memorably applied in genteel, comedic settings such as a dinner episode during which he attempts to swat away Mary (Kelly Reilly), the third-wheel woman set on uprooting Watson from his happy domestic cohabitation with Holmes. A bit more of this well-timed, odd-couple bickering over the imperiled bromance could have served to balance out the sometimes excessive, action-heavy passages, as could more emotionally-charged banter between Holmes and his lost love-turned-criminal adversary Irene (Rachel McAdams, whose raw sexuality would have made Basil Rathbone drop dead).
With its intermittent stabs at generating a quasi-horror atmosphere and its oddly mismatched set pieces (which include Holmes’s intimate bout with a gigantic goon and, on the opposite end of the extravaganza scale, a CGI-heavy, industrial machinery-avoidance gauntlet), Sherlock Holmes sometimes gives the impression of being a random hodgepodge of frantic occurrences, assembled together with a mind toward simply holding the attention of an easily distracted popcorn audience; a more charitable conclusion might be that, with more than a hundred years of canon to crib from, and a manic star eager to be put through the blockbuster paces, attempting to find and stick to one level of scale was simply not at the top of anyone’s agenda. Though the world created for the film is far too frequently seen from a rollercoaster-perspective, it’s one nevertheless imbued with believable grit and bustling life, and one worth revisiting, a prospect the filmmakers no doubt intend to pursue, as per the film’s last-minute invocation of a new, more dastardly foe, waiting in the shadows to make his grand entrance. If you can’t guess his name, don’t worry: Sherlock Holmes was made with you in mind.