Three out of five stars
Rated PG-13/128 min.
One of the most famous detectives in all of literature gets a wild new spin by director Guy Ritchie, best known for frenetic British crime thrillers like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. This is his return to form after some faulty films, with the worst being Swept Away, the woeful starring vehicle for his then-wife Madonna. Now, working with a lavish budget, elaborate sets and special effects and A-list performers, Ritchie is clearly in his element and having the time of his life. So is his star, Robert Downey Jr., whose performance in the title role is as witty and reliably enjoyable as you’d hope.
Ritchie’s revisionist take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth finds Holmes and Watson (Jude Law, in fine form) investigating the inexplicable death, disappearance and resurrection of a master criminal (Mark Strong) who has mystical powers to match Holmes’s mental brilliance. Oh, and Holmes has a killer body and kung fu skills in addition to his extraordinary mind.
I grew up loving Doyle’s gothic mystery tales, particularly The Final Solution. If you don’t count the Michael Caine comedy Without a Clue or the animated The Great Mouse Detective, the last time Holmes had his own movie was Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985, which, despite being an affectionate tribute, had splashy effects, secret societies, satanic rituals and action sequences that were a far cry from the source material. I was surprised to find the exact same thing in the first five minutes of this movie, which has very little in common with Conan Doyle’s vision. I guess audiences are too cynical and impatient for a psychologically troubled but brilliant detective in a deerstalker hat whose adventures were often more verbal than physical.
Ritchie’s energetic direction and Downey’s terrific star turn make this a likeable, consistently entertaining movie. What doesn’t work is the story. The screenplay is an amped-up ripoff of From Hell, the superior Jack the Ripper mystery from eight years ago that starred Johnny Depp, and while the action sequences are exhilarating and inventively staged, the melding of expensive effects and busy fight scenes with a period piece sometimes reminded me of Wild Wild West. That’s a bad thing.
Granted, one of the most famous of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles, also delved into the supernatural, but this film juggles slapstick comedy, romance, horror, larger-than-life action set pieces and historical fiction. In the end, it feels like a desperate attempt to please every possible audience member.
Yet I had fun, and if I were 10 years old I’d want a Holmes action figure. That’s either a very good thing or a very bad thing, depending on your point of view. Barry Wurst II