While the film and literary worlds are filled with myriad detectives, the one who is arguably the most famous is Sherlock Holmes, the master of deductive reasoning and the brainchild of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes made his debut in literature all the way back in 1887. The story was titled “A Study in Scarlet,” and the brilliant detective went on to appear on four novels and 55 more short stories.
As you would expect, Holmes was a natural for the cinema world, and a check of the Internet Movie Database reveals that he has been featured in more than 120 films and television programs dating all the way back to 1907. Throughout his celluloid history the savvy sleuth has been portrayed by such distinguished actors as Basil Rathbone, John Barrymore, Peter Cushing, Michael Caine, Charlton Heston, Raymond Massey, Christopher Plummer, Stewart Granger, Nicol Williamson, and others too numerous to mention here.
And now we can add the name of Robert Downey Jr. to the list to those who have portrayed the famous resident of 221B Baker Street in London. Because the character of Holmes always has held a certain fascination for me, I was elated when I first read that Downey Jr. was going play the part in the new film titled simply “Sherlock Holmes.” However, I left theater with mixed feelings about the film and a pervading sense of disappointment.
As the movie begins, we find Holmes (Downey Jr.) and his faithful colleague Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) thwarting the latest murder attempt of a blackguard named Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who has been terrorizing the citizens of London with a series of particularly heinous killings. Despite being caught in the act and sentenced to death, Blackwood insists that he will return from the dead after his execution, and much to the surprise of Holmes and Watson, he actually does return to the world of the living. Now the two face one of the most challenging cases of their crime-fighting careers as they pursue Blackwood into the mysterious realms of darkness unknown to them.
Let’s begin with the positive points about the film. The sets and the costumes are magnificent. The film captures the time period beautifully, and it is fascinating to watch the action unfold in the London of the late 19th century. The movie gives the city an aura of darkness and mysterious that is perfectly suited to a story about Sherlock Holmes.
The acting throughout the film also is consistently absurd. Law captures the character of Watson perfectly, and Downey’s British accent, while at times difficult to understand, is consistent from beginning to end. Law and Downey Jr. also work quite well together as partners, and their friendship and devotion to each other are completely believable.
Complementing the fine performances by Downey and Law beautifully are Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly as the women in the two men’s lives. And Strong is delightfully evil as Blackwood.
Despite all these positive elements, I did not like the way the filmmakers interpreted the story. In the production notes, director Guy Ritchie (“Snatch”) explained his approach to the character of Holmes.
“We’ve. tried to take him back to what we believe to be his origin, which is essentially a more visceral character. We’ve tried to integrate that and make him more streetwise. He is inquisitive about chemistry, martial arts, and the human condition. Yet he managed to percolate through all the different echelons of English society, which was tremendously complex. But then, as now, Sherlock Holmes is unique; there’s really no one else like him. I think that’s why his appeal has stuck. And while our story is rooted in London of the 1890s, we have tried to make it as contemporary as we possibly can.”
And producer Joel Silver said, “This film brings out qualities in Holmes that are relatively unknown but incredibly cinematic and true to the character and the adventures that Conan Doyle created. The previous adaptations of Sherlock Holmes turned the stories into something a bit more detective noir on the big screen over the years, but at their core, these were action novels. Holmes really is an 1890s man of action, with insight and intelligence that eclipse everyone else around him, including Scotland Yard.”
The more contemporary approach and the deviation from the “detective noir” idea are exactly the things I really missed in the film. Some of the action sequences are reminiscent of Bruce Willis films, and I just don’t associate this with Sherlock Holmes. I much prefer the more cerebral Holmes to the cross between John Rambo and Dirty Harry I saw in this movie. The film also was often too loud for my taste, and several of the action scenes would have fit better in the “Terminator” films.
Call me old-fashioned, but this version of “Sherlock Holmes” (Give it a final score of 6.) unfolded too much like the action films that are a dime a dozen today. The filmmakers should have known better than to tamper with the aura and tone of a Holmes story, but in this case they did not. I call that mistake, elementary, my dear readers.