The erudite detective Sherlock Holmes was first brought to life on film as a tall, serene, and hawkishly-featured British gentleman by actor Basil Rathbone in the 1940s. His original onscreen adventure series was set in the late 1800s, culminating in a timeskip to the 1940s, when Holmes valiantly combated the Axis Powers during World War II. As difficult as that is to imagine, Rathbone portrayed the character convincingly throughout all the eras – in my opinion, he was the spitting image of Sidney Paget’s illustrations in The Strand that accompanied the original Conan Doyle serialized stories.
If you go into Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie expecting a Rathbone-esque performance, you’re going to be disappointed. I can’t tell you to lower your expectations; simply alter them. Just as Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation got to step inside the shoes (and cloak) of the famous detective, it is time for Tony Stark to do the same.
You heard me right. Robert Downey Jr. plays Holmes in this version, as a scruffy inventor and action hero who’s made up of both brawn and brain. In all seriousness, it’s as if Tony Stark walked the earth during the Victorian era, and had deductive reasoning instead of a supersuit.
The story is slow to start. The first forty-five minutes are disjointed attempts at exposition, perhaps trying to prove how Holmes is distinctly different and yet the still same old Holmes readers have known and loved. He plays his violin, he has a lab where he conducts occasionally catastrophic experiments, and he has an affinity for boxing. Perhaps it is the highlighting of these seemingly minute aspects of the character, and the way they are presented, that sets this iteration of Holmes apart from others. All these elements were always there, but they present themselves abrasively in an impish way.
By his side (reluctantly, it seems,) is Dr. Watson, played by Jude Law. (Remember the days when Jude Law was in everything?) His Watson is refreshingly serious, and in my opinion, very respectful of his on-page counterpart. Watson’s more than a puppylike sidekick and he’s certainly not solely there to be comic relief. (Holmes does that by himself.)
It takes a lot for Watson to lose patience with Holmes, but in this film, he finally does. His participation in Holmes’ adventures is grudging, and he learns to be both blunt with and accepting of his flatmate as his character moves on in life. He’s certainly the most traditional Holmesian character in this film; I have no complaints about this take on Watson.
Irene Adler’s also here; she’s the Pepper Potts of this film, honestly. Can’t have a movie without a romantic subplot of some kind, I suppose. Things are dysfunctional as ever between Holmes and the American con-woman, but at least they’re relatively PG-rated compared to Moffat and Gatiss’s interpretation of the character. Again, this is an aspect of authentic Holmesian lore that was always there, but they’re being far less subtle about it.
Finally, the foreshadowing sprinkled throughout the exposition starts coming together. We meet our main antagonist, Blackwood, who looks far more Rathbonian than our Sherlock … and is practically a vampire. Or a zombie. Or (in the possession of) a very good alchemist. You’re left guessing until the very end, though I’ll admit I was on the side of science the whole time. 😀
Much like the original Tomb Raider films, the antagonist of this film appears to be part of an Illuminati-like cult. Adding to the ooh, scary factor is their penchant for decorating their artifacts with Hebrew letters that spell out total gibberish. (I don’t know if I should feel amused, offended, or really anything at all about this.)
Once the action picks up, the movie plays out quite a bit like a puzzle game, where you are left to watch Holmes work through it at whichever speed the director desires. There’s plenty that they try to show you to keep you distracted from the game afoot, but honestly, I’d figured out the resolution a long time before; it was a matter of confirming the direction this already controversial take on Sherlock Holmes was going.
The most satisfying part of the resolution, for me, is the hero’s monologue. (See, the villain couldn’t deliver it himself, he was … indisposed. That’s all I’ll say.) It’s always satisfying to read about Holmes do that; seeing it was even better.
The very note upon which the film ends is a satisfying one, despite an “Oh wait, there’s more,” moment alluding to a future antagonist’s identity. But for such a disorganized beginning, the story ties itself up nicely.
I’m not mad about the film from a Sherlockian perspective. It tries to mess with you by being different, but I found these differences refreshing. From a storytelling perspective, however, the plot’s flow is quite aggravating. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that to me, it’s a unique but ultimately faithful telling of a Sherlock Holmes adventure.