It’s particularly painful to see a film about the world’s greatest detective being so stunningly badly-plotted. SHERLOCK HOLMES is a film that barely manages to save itself from shittiness, and I find it a bit revealing that this represents the filmmakers’ idea of a Holmes for “modern audiences”. A lot of this film is indeed loyal to Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, with the important exception that Holmes was not an average action hero, plus he did not possess a sense of smell that could easily earn him the nickname Bloodhound Holmes.
In fact, the filmmakers try way too hard to establish the detective’s genius to the audience. And while the scenes showing the way he plans a sequence of punches and kicks to knock his opponents out are aesthetically pleasant and even amusing, it’s ridiculous he can predict so far ahead. Sherlock Holmes had extraordinary deductive ability – not clairvoyance. And as aforementioned, I can accept Holmes having a good nose — but not as good as the movie tries to depict it. With a nose like that, it’s a mystery why Holmes doesn’t just go on all fours and sniff his way to wherever the villain is hiding at the moment.
Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) is the villain, as evidenced by his attempt to sacrifice a young woman in the beginning of the film, being stopped by Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his loyal sidekick, Watson (Jude Law). Watson is about to get engaged to Mary (Kelly Reilly), something that will force him to live away from his long-time roommate Holmes, much to the latter’s dislike. However, after Blackwood is hanged and pronounced dead by Watson himself, he comes back from the dead, and Watson, fearing for his reputation and not resisting another adventure, reluctantly goes along with Holmes to find out how this happened. Also, Holmes has to deal with the involvement of con artist Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) with whom, of course, he has a lot of sexual tension.
That last bit is only one of this film’s many cliches, which go from an object being accidentally kicked off a high ledge to denote fatal height — something that is already quite fucking obvious without that particular visual aid, thank you — to a gigantic henchman who takes orders from the main villain. Not to mention the locations of a murder forming a symbol on a map, something that seems to serve no purpose other than cluing Holmes in to what Blackwood’s next step will be. Hell, there’s even a fucking crow that shows up whenever a death is imminent.
And these cliches are not part of a good plot, or even a decent plot. Not only the whole thing seems extremely convoluted when Holmes breaks it down in the flashback-filled ending (instead of going to help an ally who has just fallen off a high ledge and might be very hurt and in need of medical aid), there’s no getting around some of the film’s larger plotholes, like Watson, a renowned physician, failing to notice that Blackwood has no marks around his neck from being fucking hanged. And even that pales beyond the moment Holmes deduces a radio transmitter — a technology the movie itself implies was not yet invented — must be in use to activate a certain machine from another room — in other words, Holmes quite simply deduces a technological breakthrough when faced with a mechanism that doesn’t have any visible activation switch on it.
It is, however, an entertaining film. Some of the dialogue is very inspired, like the excellent moment Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan, efficient) tells Holmes, “In another life, you would have made an excellent criminal,” to which Holmes, in a moment truly worthy of the original Holmes, replies, “Yes, and you, sir, an excellent policeman.” And regardless of the plot’s stupidity, it is always a pleasure to witness the work of the talented Robert Downey Jr. It’s particularly interesting how his gaze never seems to stay on a single spot for long, always moving to examine something else. His chemistry with the always brilliant Jude Law works, and Rachel McAdams, as Irene Adler, expresses the character’s main traits very convincingly: her cleverness and irresistible charm. Mark Strong, sadly, is given a very average villain to work with, but much better than his character on SUNSHINE, at least.
As the director, Guy Ritchie does an inconsistent job. Some of the special effects are dodgy (like the unfinished ship accidentally sailing away) and he resorts to some pointlessly intricate camera movements, like an angle that starts upside-down and goes back upright by following two characters in pursuit. The actors’ movements in some scenes are equally artificial, especially during the sequence Holmes uses smoke from a fireplace to fool an enemy: the other character simply turns his back to Holmes, despite the detective being on his feet and free to walk around, restrained only by handcuffs.
But Ritchie offers some good moments, like when the camera moves away from Irene Adler, revealing where she’s at, only to return to her in a smooth and aesthetically great movement. And the explosion that Ritchie films in slow motion is worthy of applause, despite some problematic CGI (the fire is obviously digital, but it also looks very digital). And while the action scenes are quite excessive and use a lot of fast-cutting, the editing is competent enough to make sure they’re at least clear. The pretty cinematography aids Ritchie in his depiction of Victorian England, and Hans Zimmer’s score uses a relatively original, but very well-chosen style, resulting in a remarkable soundtrack.
But Ritchie cannot resist filming the climactic final battle beneath an ominous dark sky, and the aforementioned scene where Holmes breaks the whole plot down is painful not only due to the plot being laughable, but also due to the extremely artificial situation a certain character finds himself in while this is happening (it involves planks of wood that are apparently very weak but possess great sense of dramatic timing, with the best timing easily belonging to the heavy prop that simply decides to fall at a very convenient moment).
It is an entertaining movie, but if SHERLOCK HOLMES is what filmmakers believe to be appropriate to modern audiences — a irreverent action hero with superhuman senses and clairvoyance that barely differs from other irreverent action heroes — than I think we should go back to aiming for victorian audiences. They seemed to be able to hold their attention without an action scene having to break out every five minutes.