Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes arrives with the bristling, cocksure, indefatigable force of a film that’s been preordained as a franchise-in-waiting. And why not, really? This film has certain attractive “elements” — a rejuvenated, box office-minted Robert Downey, Jr., the hook of a conceit that toys with modernity while also haphazardly exploiting its period piece roots — and style to boot, in the form of burnished, photo-snap action. And for distributor Warner Bros., a fan of tentpole releases to be sure, those factors were enough to get all the checks signed during production. They’re just hoping audiences will feel the same way.
For the bulk of its running time, Sherlock Holmes breezily swings along on the charisma of its lead, and the unlikely but very real appeal of the movie as a sort of costumed “bro-mance.” The fact that his friend and partner in sleuthing, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), is getting engaged and moving out of his residence has Holmes alternating between fits and depression. But when an aristocratic peddler of dark arts mayhem, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), escapes his sentenced hanging and sets about on a course of murderous, political power-consolidating mayhem, Holmes is able to lure his colleague back into the fold in an attempt to validate logic and reason over magic, and again bring Blackwood to justice. Adding additional (if nominal) intrigue to the proceedings is the fact that Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an old flame of Holmes and spitfire in her own right, is somehow tied up in the affair, tasked by a mysterious boss with hiring Holmes to track down a piece of unusual information.
As ex-lovers, Downey and McAdams evince no great romantic chemistry, but then again the movie isn’t really concerned with sincere libidinal heat, just the added layer of air-quote tension and the ready-made excuse for double entendres that it provides to the story. If anything, this film is basically the big-budget action-adventure version of Superbad, a loose-limbed flick in which coy, often partially deflected masculine crisis and uncertainty drive and inform one’s affection for what’s unfolding on screen as much as the actual plot. Downey’s Holmes is a rakish, irascible Lothario, and he delivers his lines in snappish fashion, sometimes like he’s running sides with an assistant while simultaneously playing a game of ping-pong. Law is a suitable foil, exasperated and dapper, but not to a degree that it upstages Downey’s performance.
The action, shot by Ritchie with a punchy, characteristic flair for the over-the-top, is wildly improbable; one doesn’t really feel the characters, no matter their slippery intellect and lithe frames, are capable of either taking or dispensing some of the physical beatings and action that the story demands. A lot of the dialogue is also silly (Blackwood intones to Holmes that they bound together on “a journey that will twist the very fabric of nature,” which is liable to make one either titter, or convulse with pained memories of 2002’s The Time Machine… possibly both), and the villain sketched so perfunctorily that one will wonder why he’s going to all this trouble when he could be living a much easier, and equally villainous, life.
Downey, chiefly, and also Law, to a certain degree, make Sherlock Holmes certainly tolerable throughout, and even quite fun in a few good stretches. At the end, however, the movie threatens to teeter over into complete nonsense. A scaffolding-set sword fight finale elicits no particular tension, or rooting interest, which is never a good sign for your big emotional pay-off. Truth be told, I can already feel this film receding into the recesses of my mind; there isn’t anything particularly vital or lasting about Sherlock Holmes. That’s far from the most damning criticism, I realize. This is pop Hollywood filmmaking, but not something anyone should feel the need to think about, or see more than once. That it reportedly already has a sequel in the works says a lot about the modern Hollywood machine. (Warner Bros., PG-13, 129 minutes)