Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes as a gritty pub-brawler? Before you dismiss the big-budget Hollywood retooling of the literary detective, look back at author Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material. Appearing in over 50 stories, Holmes was a bit of a rude rapscallion who would get into brawls and recreationally use cocaine. It was only until Dr. Watson stepped into his life that Holmes cleaned up and became a proper, respectable gentleman and the figure we know. With stylish director Guy Ritchie (RocknRolla) attached, it appears that this Holmes for a new generation is actually a throwback to his roots.

Famous detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his assistant, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), are at an impasse. Watson wishes to leave Holmes establishment and start a new life with a woman he loves. Holmes is also threatened by Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), an aristocrat in prison for killing women in ritualistic manners of the dark arts. He’s about to be executed when Lord Blackwood promises he will return from the dead, and his murders will continue. Sure enough, after Blackwood is hung by the neck and pronounced dead by Watson, the murders resume and the dead man himself is seen walking among the living. Holmes is on the trail of his resurrected foe when he meets Adler (Rachel McAdams), the woman who broke his heart. She’s employed by a mysterious stranger and becomes mixed up in the deadly hunt to stop Lord Blackwood.

As is quickly becoming commonplace, Downey is the best part of the movie. His combative relationship with Law makes the movie worthwhile. They have a feisty, squabbling chemistry that generates a lot of humor, and they interact like a 1980s buddy cop movie. Their verbal jousting practically saves the movie from collapsing due to the overwrought plot. At its best moments, Sherlock Holmes feels like a buddy cop movie transplanted to Victorian England. Downey is having a hoot as the character and brings a vibrant energy to his role, turning Holmes into an eccentric who gets buggy if he cannot obsess over a case, taking several cues from the Monk playbook of eccentric detective genius. Downey is cocksure and a charming cad, enjoying every moment he can outsmart the competition. Law is more equal than sidekick and plays the straight man to Downey’s neurotic detective. I’m not usually one to bemoan foreign accents, but this is one movie that would benefit from subtitles. The actors don’t necessarily talk in thick accents but they speak so fast that it begins to sound like an unintelligible mumble.

The romantic subplot is a non-starter as Holmes reunites with both The One That Got Away and his Crafty Equal. McAdams is a fine actress with a luminescent smile, but her involvement is really an afterthought. She’s the old flame that always re-enters in those 1980s buddy cop movies. She stays long enough to rekindle some old feelings and provide a figure in need of rescuing. Her storyline is one of several that could have been completely eliminated. The same could be said for Watson’s girlfriend, the steamboat accomplice, the put-upon maid, and many of the conspirators.

The plot for Sherlock Holmes feels like three screenplays were crudely sewn together. There are so many junky side stories and characters that need to be eliminated. It’s just far too busy without anything making real traction. The story is weighed down with expository dialogue and mounting subplots. There are a few sequences that jump forward in time but don’t inform the audience, so we’re left a tad discombobulated. The film jumps immediately into the fray without any pertinent flashbacks or setup, daring the audience to pay attention. At some point in the middle I gave up, having disengaged from the plot and determined to simply wait it out for Holmes to explain what I was missing. I think at one point I was even starting to nod off to sleep, which is a deadly sign for an action movie. The central occult conspiracy has a lot of men in cloaks but no discernible outcome. The movie is littered with conspirators and locations and details that all seem meaningless until Holmes can tie all the jangled pieces together. The script is overloaded and half-cocked and bides its time waiting for Holmes to provide relative clarity. It gets old after a while when only Holmes knows the clues and he won’t share.

You don’t usually think of the intellectual detective in the deerstalker cap as a man of action, but this brash reinterpretation would be acceptable if Holmes found himself in some action sequences that would befit his legendary stature. Ritchie?s hyperbolic shooting style makes for a lot of fast whooshing and quick spinning but it doesn’t add up to many satisfying sequences; the best is probably a battle with Holmes and a giant that destroys a shipyard plank by plank. Ritchie introduces an intriguing action device for this beefed-up Holmes; he mentally envisions the steps of his attack, going from punch to counter punch. This technique is a fun peek into the mind of Holmes and it makes the action easier to follow for the audience. The fact that this narrative action device is used twice in the 30 minutes made me alert. Surely this cool little stylish flourish would come into play during a climactic moment. Nope. This visual quirk is done twice and then curiously never resurfaces. Instead, the movie ends in a climax dotted with the tired routine of atop high places. The showdown is rather weak. Watching Holmes and Watson beat their way through thugs has its meta-literary appeal but Ritchie and his screenwriters fail to summon entertainment amidst the cluttered chaos.

I am a self-described Ritchie fan, though he hasn’t made a good movie since 2001’s Snatch. He lathers on the style right from the opening studio titles being integrated into the cobblestone streets of London. The production design is impressive and the actors seem to be having a game go with the literary legend, but it all comes back to the murky story. Sherlock Holmes could have succeeded on a crackerjack story or on being an entertaining thrill-ride, but it fails in both areas. The nonsensical conspiracy plot feels like a leftover from a bad Dan Brown novel (redundant?) with secret societies and mystic orders and blah blah blah. The characters feel less than real because they aren’t given time to be fleshed out, so they resort to being stock archetypes locked into well-defined place by the fact that the plot gallops from the start. The action is uninspired and occasionally incoherent. Sherlock Holmes as a man of action is an acceptable premise but he needs to be placed in strongly constructed, inventive action sequences. I like Downey and Law, and I especially like their time together, but the movie lets them down. Maybe I was just holding out hope that Holmes would come back and explain the whole movie, providing compelling evidence for mass entertainment that I had been missing. It was never to be.

Nate’s Grade: C+


About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on December 25, 2009, in 2009 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. “Ritchie introduces an intriguing action device for this beefed-up Holmes; he mentally envisions the steps of his attack, going from punch to counter punch.”

    That was the most memorable part of the film. I agree about the fast and furious dialogue. I had to use the subtitles and read fast! As for the complicated plot, perhaps you should re-watch the film. That might help. Then again, it might not. I haven’t watched the film for quite some time, and don’t recall to what extent I found it confusing.

    I also have the sequel on DVD. Did you review it?

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