2009 will be remembered as the year when two famed fictional franchises got that most questionable of big screen makeovers – the infamous re-imagining – and in the case of at least one potentially unknown quantity (J. J. Abrams brave Star Trek update) the verdict was fairly unanimous. While it’s safe to say that Guy Ritchie’s take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective won’t be garnering the same end-of-the-year honors as its interstellar counterpart, it’s just as effective as the aforementioned modernized space opera. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes is just a single casting decision away from being another brilliant update. Instead, it’s just a wonderful, if flawed, entertainment.
The set-up has Holmes (an excellent Robert Downey Jr.) and his assistant Watson (a marvelous Jude Law) at wits end. They have just solved a major multiple murder case involving the sinister Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), and as he is prepared for execution, the pair is planning to split up. Our good doctor is getting engaging to long suffering girlfriend Mary, and Holmes is not happy about it. When a cemetery guard claims that Blackwood has risen from the dead, and when he is indeed spotted around London causing more dark mischief, the boys are back on the case. Complicating things is shrewd American super criminal named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). Not only has she thwarted Holmes on at least one previous occasion, she stole his heart as well. Now, as Blackwood plans to overthrow the British government, it is up to our dynamic duo to save the day.
The weakest link in Sherlock Holmes was not handing over the directorial reigns to UK Crime Guy Ritchie. He’s actually well suited for putting his stylized spin on such stodgy Victorian fare. As he did with the British gangster film, Ritchie revitalizes the language of film while staying within the strict guidelines of this wannabe mainstream entertainment – and he manages magnificently. Nor was the hiring of American Downey Jr. a bad move. He can handle the accent, and brings enough contemporary swagger to make Holmes relevant again. There is no questioning Law, Strong, or Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade. Each one is excellent, offering ample nuance and panache to their parts. No, what almost sinks this otherwise stellar experience in one Rachel McAdams. Cast as Holmes’ love interest/endearing con artist nemesis, she’s just too off kilter to sit solidly alongside her far more accomplished costars.
While it may not be fair to blame all Sherlock Holmes‘ failings on one particular person (after all, she was approved by Ritchie based on Downey’s suggestion), it’s clear that Ms. Adler does not belong in this story – at least, not as realized by Ms. McAdams. The actress suffers from what could best be described as Billy Pilgrim syndrome. She is unstuck in time, coming off as neither turn of the century nor contemporary. Instead, she can’t be placed in a period, which is deadly for a film that relies on evoking a certain era to enliven its ideas. There is also a problem with her profile. As a character, Irene Adler is historically much more worldly wise and capable of matching Holmes one on one. McAdams looks like Downey’s daughter, not his equal.
Every time she shows up, every time the script by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg throws Irene into a scene, Sherlock Holmes struggles to stay fun. Granted, purists may balk at some of the other liberties taken, though this is one of the rare interpretations of the character that gets his internal process down pat. Even elements that people will think out of place (the underground boxing, the weaponry) all have a purpose in showing how Holmes relates to the world (deducing human nature) as well as to his friends (he fights to help Watson with his gambling debts, FYI). The companionship and teamwork we expect from duo is evident in every scene. The chemistry is undeniable. Then Ms. McAdams walks in and the carefully balanced cinematic brew goes substantially awry.
Still, Ritchie does his best to keep things lively. The narrative is just a MacGuffin, a means of getting Holmes and Watson to scour the London streets looking for clues. They run into all kinds of criminal types, always one step ahead of them intellectually, while constantly challenged physically. This is one of the most pro-active interpretations of the character ever. Instead of spending his time in deep thought contemplation, Holmes runs amuck, dishing out his own brand of well-considered justice with a wink and a wry smile. Downey is just delicious in the part, bringing that cool cockiness he showed in Iron Man to the role. But his Holmes is also troubled. This is a man who’s on the brink of losing everything – his best friend, his social position…and maybe even his mind.
Luckily, Law is around to prop him up. This is one of the best versions of Watson ever, a clever man who uses his reputation (and talents) as a war hero to actually assist instead of simply standing back and whimpering. Many assume that Holmes and his platonic partner are all brain and no brawn. One of the best things about Ritchie’s reinterpretation is that both men are made dimensional. Each one can outwit the standard criminal element. They can also kick ass when need be. Toss in Strong destroying the scenery with his merry Method mastication and you’ve got a jolly good regal romp. McAdams, thought, brings it all down to the realm of the retread whenever she appears – and that’s really too bad.
Hollywood frequently allows a single filmmaking facet – script, star, production situation – to undermine an otherwise promising project. It says a great deal about everything else in Sherlock Holmes that, Rachel McAdams aside, the rest of the movie is magnificent. Will you cringe at seeing the famed detecting duo running through explosions like modern day action heroes? Maybe. Will the last act clash on a half-completed Tower Bridge remind you of dozens of indistinct Tinseltown blockbusters? Sure. Do Downey and Law take risks with characters that are beloved and embraced by millions? Yes. And does Ritchie occasionally indulge in the directorial tricks that have him loved/hated by audiences. Absolutely. Still, even with all these potential problems, Sherlock Holmes is heavenly. It’s just too bad that a single creative decision costs this effort its status as a classic. It is, otherwise.