Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes
Jude Law as Dr. John Watson
Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler
Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood
Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade
Robert Maillet as Dredger
Geraldine James as Mrs. Hudson
Kelly Reilly as Mary Morstan
William Houston as Constable Clark
Hans Matheson as Lord Coward
James Fox as Sir Thomas
William Hope as Ambassador Standish
Clive Russell as Captain Tanner
Oran Gurel as Reordan
David Garrick as McMurdo
It’s Victorian England and crime is afoot, and that can only mean one thing: Sherlock Holmes is on the case. After a considerable absence from the big screen, Holmes is set to return in all of his clue-deducing, kung-fu action-adventure glory.
Yes, Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and venerable associate Watson (Jude Law) have been given the full Hollywood makeover. Not content merely to observe, deduce and explain, Holmes and Co. jump into the fray with fists and guns blazing (can fists blaze? nevermind, doesn’t matter) in Guy Ritchie’s (“Snatch”) big budget attempt at the detective.
And it more or less works, mainly because of Downey’s ability to get you to go along with whatever he’s doing.
After solving the case of the fiendish Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), Holmes is forced to return to the one mystery his powers of deduction fail him at; human beings. With Watson preparing to move out and begin his life as a married man and the only woman he’s ever been attracted to (Rachel McAdams) is an inveterate criminal, it’s no wonder he quickly falls into a stupor of despondency and misanthropism. That is, until Lord Blackwood rises from the grave to kill again.
It’s actually not as crazy as it sounds. There’s quite a bit from the original material at play, only more so. Like any good adaptation, the Ritchie and his cadre of screenwriters have kept what they liked and minimalized what they didn’t, staying faithful to the original but certainly putting their own stamp on it.
Tossed out the window wholesale is Holmes’ aloofness and Watson’s dogged loyalty. Our modern day versions bicker and fight more like real brothers than perfect fictional archetypes.
And that’s the real trick that makes “Sherlock Holmes” play. It would, has been in fact, extremely easy to treat the character with kid gloves, instead of as a role to be performed. To take him only as far as the material goes, but no further.
Downey and Ritchie’s version, however it would be a real stretch to say he seems like a real person. He’s far too much larger than life for that. But he doesn’t feel boxed-in by the material.
After Blackwood rises from the dead, Holmes finds himself hired by a secret cabal of would-be magicians to find out what Blackwood is up to and stop him. As he and Watson examine the remains of Blackwood’s grave, it’s the perfect time for the film to stop for the classic Holmes battle cry: “the game’s afoot!”
But rather than stop there, Downey and Law continue on through to the end of the quote from Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” turning the moment from a staged recreation to a real, private joke between friends. And it’s so much more affecting that way. It’s as if the characters of the books were a watered down version left us by Holmes’ biographers, while this version is closer to how it really was. If you squint real hard.
Holmes likes to drink and fight and detests the mothering of his landlady, Mrs. Hudson (Geraldine James). Watson has a gambling problem strong enough that Holmes has to hold onto his checkbook, and he has enough of a spine to stand up to Holmes’ frequent bullying.
It is almost always in the moments with its characters, especially between Holmes and Watson–who himself has been bulked up into much more competent, rough and tumble ex-military man–that “Sherlock Holmes” really shines.
It’s a bit of a one-sided relationship, however. Watson by himself isn’t particularly interesting, only in his reflection and reaction to Holmes. But that’s okay because when Holmes is on screen it’s hard to care about much else.
The filmmakers have done an excellent job in conceiving the Holmes they want to portray, but this really is a case of the singer, not the song. Downey’s Holmes is irascible, exploitative and rude, but also energetic and ready for a brawl whenever it comes his way. It’s over the top as all get out, but in Downey’s hands it works.
The only thing really missing is Holmes’ classic deductive ability, which only gets a few uses, leaving him more of an action hero than a detective. But it’s only a small false note among a handful of generally excellent ones. The production design and cinematography are first rate, the smallest characters are well drawn and used, and Hans Zimmer delivers one of his best scores in years.
Purists can, and certainly will, spend much time arguing how much is true to the material (Watson has his limp! Holmes did know Bartitsu!) and how much was changed (there’s no cocaine! He never saw Irene Adler again!) but the rest won’t, and shouldn’t care. The fact is, “Sherlock Holmes” is just down right entertaining.
Don’t look too far under the surface because much of it is quite typical big-budget adventure filmmaking, but on the surface it’s got a great regard for character and humor, more so than a lot of films of its stripe, and terrific performance from Downey to tie it all together. There are other flashy movies out there for people who prefer that, but if “Sherlock Holmes” is proof of anything, it’s that a great actor is the best effect of all.