With iconic literary characters that have existed in pop culture for decades, it’s easy to have a preconceived understanding. For instance, it’s hard not to associate Sherlock Holmes with his ubiquitous deerstalker hat even though author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never described the character wearing one. Nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes – as an icon – exists in the minds of readers and viewers in a very distinct fashion. To present anything other than that heavily engrained image is a risky prospect and is probably best handled by a “reboot” of the brand. Unfortunately, that course of action wasn’t taken here in this newest incarnation of the master detective. The real disappointment of Sherlock Holmes, however, is in the storytelling.
Rather than being the beginning of Sherlock Holmes’ (Robert Downey, Jr.) career, Sherlock Holmes begins at the end of it – well, at the end of Holmes’ career with Dr. Watson (Jude Law) anyway. Watson is engaged to be married and will soon be moving away from his longtime friend and partner. They’ve just solved their last case together and put an end to the dark and murderous deeds of Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) who is slated for execution by hanging. Things go awry when Blackwood predicts more murders and seemingly rises from the dead, throwing London into religious hysteria. When the predictions come true, it’s up to Holmes, Watson and unlikely ally Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) to stop him.
There’s a lot to like about Sherlock Holmes, starting with its very competent and likeable cast. Robert Downey Jr. is a very strong actor and always a joy to watch. His Holmes is less stuffy and more quirky; less gentlemanly and more acerbic. Downey also seems to have a knack for playing pompous characters and his ability shines through here. Jude Law’s Watson is an excellent straight-man. His love and frustration for Holmes feels genuine and even though Watson is only a sidekick, his character is portrayed as bigger than what’s presented, with motivations and goals that exist beyond the camera lens. Mark Strong and Rachel McAdams also turn in fine performances, but their characters aren’t developed enough or given enough screen time to really challenge their abilities.
Sherlock Holmes is also very satisfying on a visual level. Post American Civil War London looks authentic and the different set pieces feel fresh, like the fight at the shipyard. Holmes has also been given a hipper look. He sports sunglasses, a hat with an upturned brim and a short, straight-stemmed pipe. The fight scenes are also fun to watch, especially when Holmes sees the fight in slow motion ahead of time in his mind, all the while narrating his actions.
Unfortunately, the film falls apart on several key elements. First and foremost, when did Sherlock Holmes become such a great fighter? Throughout the film, he’s beating up guys who outweigh him by 50 pounds and can swing weapons with martial arts black belt accuracy. Even with the slow motion convention where he’s able to plan his attack, there’s a very big difference between wanting to do something physically and physically doing what you want. Having such a physically masterful Sherlock Holmes is definitely unexpected, a bit of a stretch and more or less unwelcome since it reduces his vulnerability.
Additionally, Rachel McAdams’ character, Irene Adler, smacks of audience pandering. McAdams is a tremendous talent and in many ways her beauty is unrivaled, but in Sherlock Holmes she’s nothing more than a pretty face to reinforce Holmes’ heterosexuality. Adler may have a larger part in the books and from the film it’s obvious that she and Holmes have history, but the way she’s introduced gives the feeling that she’s been shoved into the script. It’s a shame she wasn’t utilized more organically.
The fatal flaw for the film, however, is in how the story is told. Sherlock Holmes is held together entirely by the last ten minutes. In that time, the audience learns everything it needs to know about the bad guy, his motivations, his plans and his methods. Typically, that’s fine and even offers a bit of nostalgia for old-time whodunit murder mysteries where everything is revealed by the intrepid detective at the very end of the show. In Sherlock Holmes, however, this convention isn’t handled very well. Throughout the entire film people die in mysterious ways and Holmes picks up clues and absolutely nothing is explained to the audience. So when a man slowly dies in his bath tub, with no visible indicator as to how he’s dying, viewers can’t help but scratch their heads and wonder what they’re watching.
Instead, Holmes answers all questions at the climax of the film with unfulfilling explanations that can be equated to “it was all a dream.” When it comes to mysteries, audiences want to be part of the investigation. People want to discover clues and make connections for themselves. When the detective relies on evidence that is never shown to the audience then there’s really no point in having a mystery at all since the solution can just be made up on the spot.
As a film independent of any kind of brand, Sherlock Holmes is an average time in the theater. It only really becomes disappointing when one considers how great the movie could have been. Sherlock Holmes is one of those characters that movie serials were made for. Hopefully, the cast’s star power will be strong enough for a decent box office showing that will give the filmmakers another chance to get the presentation right with a sequel.