Part slapstick comedy, part action extravaganza, Guy Ritchie’s popcorn period-piece Sherlock Holmes visualizes the titular super-detective (Robert Downey Jr.) as a ramshackle genius with massive physical cunning and shoddy grooming habits. On the brink of losing best friend and colleague Dr. Watson (Jude Law) to a woman, Holmes languishes in his cavernous flat, stymieing both Watson’s conquest and his personal mental development. The filmmakers upset the quagmire with a plodding, elongated story concerning a supernatural sleeper-cell cult, reinvigorating Holmes and Watson’s relationship and forcing them to save all of Britain, hell the entire world for that matter! It’s often ludicrous, but intoxicating to say the least.
Sherlock Holmes pushes and pulls between fluffy diversion and ridiculous rehash, and ironically Holmes himself seems to mimic this occasionally indifferent cinematic focus. Every major character, from hero to villain, grooves without a sense of doubt or urgency, eagerly tripping over plot points to fill generic roles or participate in good old fashioned foreshadowing. This gives the film a breezy feel, something unexpectedly refreshing in this sort of compressed, hyperbolic genre. Faithful or not, Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock bristles with dangerous charm and skill, a great anchor for what turns out to be a one-note film. Watching Holmes and Watson verbally spar inspires enough reason to momentarily bypass the glaring plot holes and lacking cinematic tangibles. Both pummel with words and finish with fists, men of violent action more than meticulous detectives.
In his Hollywood blockbuster debut, Ritchie rightfully shoots for the middle of the vest, inserting just enough dynamism in the straightforward aesthetic approach. Seeing how some of his previous efforts immediately flail out of control, it’s not necessarily a bad decision. Ritchie always displays a reflexive visual ambition directly tied to character traits and motivation. In Sherlock Holmes, he slyly sneaks elaborate shots into surprisingly subtle places, favoring a bit of restraint instead of overwhelming with his patented frenetic visuals. The breakneck opening action scene provides an excellent example of Richie’s gaze, a chase scene where pacing and composition dispel with dialogue and context. It’s an exciting introduction to this particularly dank vision of late 19th century London, revealing the intriguing shadow play between elitist deception and common man justice while expanding the dangerous ideologies waiting to spin their webs on the apathetic and weak.
But Ritchie cannot sustain this interesting dichotomy for long, ultimately relegating the film to a standard series of mysteries, romances, and redemptions. These generic conventions all lead toward a benign “surprise” finale, not surprisingly setting up invariable sequels. Most regrettably, Ritchie’s kinetic revision inevitably panders to the vices of modern Hollywood mediocrity, littering the narrative with cheesy twists and flashy fight scenes, willingly and knowingly ignoring the depths of many characters. Sherlock Holmes skillfully hooks the audience into a boisterous groove, only to burn the momentum with hollow technological effects and dim characterizations. But despite the inconsequential overall result, Downey, Jr. and Ritchie do create a lasting mixture of burning charm and rage with this conflicted Holmes, a fitting mantle for the iconic character to hang his weighty bowler hat.