One can almost imagine Guy Ritchie as a lad in Hatfield, Hertfordshire England, crouched under the bedclothes reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and thinking, Oh, how I wish Holmes was like Batman, swinging about and smashing the evil-doers!
Ritchie may not have actually had that boyhood wish — his new action-packed Sherlock Holmes was written by others (Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham) — but he has lent his directing talents to a Holmes that casts Robert Downey Jr. as the cerebral Victorian sleuth, reimagined as a surly, bare-knuckle-brawling bounder. Setting aside the heresy against the sacred Holmes canon, casting Downey was this misbegotten movie’s first mistake. The excellent Downey did intensive research for the role and wields a passable British accent, but he’s too young and contemporary-looking to be a credible Holmes. The next error was rendering insignificant Holmes’ friend and chronicler, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), who spends most of his screen time complaining about Holmes’ violin playing, pistol shooting and experimenting on Watson’s bulldog (the movie’s most charming actor).
The film serves up a mixed stew of hoary Holmesiana, featuring the evil Dr. Moriarty and Holmes’ female nemesis, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, dreadful). The plot is some folderol about an occult society whose leader, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), survives the hangman’s noose and has a plan for (what else?) world domination. Pursuing the case, Holmes and Watson participate in a series of imaginatively staged fight sequences.
Maybe Ritchie and company should be praised for taking Holmes out of the parlour, but really, Holmes should be charming rather than rude, and if he’s going to be an action hero, he might at least be a genteel one. Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrel, Snatch) has a good feel for the English underclass, and the few lively segments are those featuring its denizens (a pipe-smoking gypsy woman, a grizzled boat captain, a crowd at a pit fight improbably featuring a bare-chested Holmes). Overlong and a little unappetizing, this Holmes is unlikely to endear itself either to Holmesians or discriminating action-movie fans (if there is such a creature).
Nevertheless, Ritchie is busily at work on a sequel. Sir Arthur, please telephone your office.