In a manner of speaking, yes… they were closer than just out solving crimes.
—Robert Downey Jr. to Dave Letterman, 2009-12-16
When he needs to let off steam, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) heads over to the local pub, where he removes his shirt and kicks some ass. Gazing at his massive opponent, he props himself against the wooden fencing that surrounds their sawdusted ring, his body hard and his expression suggesting both deliberation and boredom.
Poised to battle, he pauses, and then launches into what might be termed Guy Ritchie’s signature fight choreography. That is, as Holmes narrates what he’ll do—which move he’ll make, what nerve he’ll damage, his rival’s response, his response to the response—the scene switches gears. The image shows his pre-imagined assault, zapped fast and pulled-taffy slow, then the real thing, with bones cracking and blood splatting. It’s action rendered ridiculous and cruel, wild and precise.
As such, the scene typifies this Sherlock Holmes, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth, but updated for viewers used to consuming Transformers and Iron Man. Holmes and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) still solve cases that baffle Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan, dreadfully underused), but they’re also facing a domestic crisis. Brought on by Watson’s decision to move out of the partners’ Baker Street flat and to marry Mary (Kelly Reilly), the upcoming split has Holmes in a tizzy, demonstrated in his increased efforts in the pub fights as well as in the background checks on Watson’s intended. (The boys do argue like marrieds: when Watson charges him waging a “campaign to sabotage my relationship with Mary,” Holmes charges back that he’s “overtired, feeling a bit sensitive.”)
The truth is, Mary is no match for Holmes—and everyone knows it. When, during a dinner meeting, she wonders how he makes “grand assumptions out of such tiny little details,” its clear she’s not long for this boys’ world. That world is ordered by Holmes and Watson’s shared sensibility, their crime-solving, their interest in violence and brutality: Holmes draws Watson back into the fray by laying out a corpse in need of inspection, near the good doctor’s tools. Though he’s supposed to be en route to his lady friend, Watson is stopped, unable to turn away from the stiff.
The supposed main plot—much less interesting than the boys’ heartfelt and occasionally witty interactions—has to do with a dastardly villain, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who comes complete with robes and chants and smoke-and-thunderish industrial-age magic tricks, all the better to cow his cultish followers into believing everything he deems true. Holmes sees through the dark artsy gimmicks, of course, though he and Watson are a bit surprised to learn that the man they have seen hanged and dead—no pulse, no breathing, the whole proto-CSI deal—turns up on the other side, arranging for more tricks and cowing more followers. That makes for some more adventure, in between Holmes’ continued attempts to stop the marriage that he worries will ruin the most important relationship in his own life.
That’s not to say this relationship is anything other than platonic and hetero, at least according to Warner Bros. executives, who have come out—so to speak—against the insinuation that the boys might be gay or leaning that way (apparently, these execs haven’t actually read Conan Doyle). Besides, the movie is careful to include a girlfriend for Holmes, the scheming, extremely red-lipped, and suitably named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), so rally, you know that she sleeps with girls—even a girl who leaves him tied to a bed and naked after one testy-erotic encounter (primarily so you can get another peep at his manly man abs).
Beyond the snippets of their sexual business, past and present, Holmes spends too much energy trying to figure out (and briefly tail) Irene, though her other allegiance, to another, mysterious man doesn’t so much complicate the plot as it does set up for the second installment of the wannabe franchise. This man, no surprise at all, is Moriarty, and you have to wonder why a first episode would waste any time at all on the silly Lord Blackwood when it has an evil mastermind in the wings. It could be that Blackwood’s primary function is political, in the sense that he states outright his desire to return England to imperial status (he wants a “future ruled by us”), especially wanting to wreak revenge on those upstart ex-colonies.
As Blackwood is conjuring his Dr. Evilish plan, London is in the midst of erecting the Tower Bridge (historically, 1886-1892, though the dates are blurry here), a sign of half-realized Victorian engineering. This construction site serves as a mighty metaphor as well as finale location, looking forward to what’s coming (for England, for the Holmes-action franchise, who can say?) at the same time that it underscores the precariousness of the film’s present. As Holmes teeters on the girders, (digital) water rippling below, he’s a man between eras and expectations. Whether “out solving crimes” or back in the Baker Street rooms, he and his partner are best together, however you want to read them. As Holmes tells Watson, “There’s nothing more elusive than an obvious fact.”