As a movie, Sherlock Holmes is really only halfway there: A boneheaded action film smartly dressed up as an intellectual game of cat-and-mouse. A sophisticated chess match that is repeatedly interrupted by TNT detonations.
Don’t get me wrong: I had some fun here, mostly in the first half of the film. And it’s clear to me that early audiences are already being wowed by Robert Downey Jr.’s quirky-fiery performance as Mr. Holmes. A hard ass Mr. Holmes. (See Techland’s top 10 characters of the decade)
He’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe, for bringing a little sex appeal to this iconic brainiac. But what troubles me, when you look at the entirety of his performance, is that there’s really nothing deductive about his behavior. Director Guy Ritche – always a fan of throwing things into high gear – doesn’t have any interest in helping us to see the world through Holmes’s eyes. He figures things out, and then proceeds to tell us what he knows. We’re never quite able to get inside his head; he’s as closed-off a movie personality as you will ever encounter. That said, the six-pack looks quite nice.
So this is why I’m worried about what Downey Jr.’s Holmes represents. Sure, he seems smart. And he has a few good one liners – most of which you’ve already seen in the movie’s trailer above. But every time his investigation gains traction – probing the supposed resurrection of a criminal who was hung to death – off we go instead on another foot chase or explosion montage. The whole thing feels like one half geek thriller meshed with one half action film. Is it possible that both camps will leave unsatisfied?
Still, there are a few pleasures. For any devout Holmes fan, I think there are three key sequences that will send you away with a smile (that is, once your ears stop ringing from all the bangs and booms):
1. The opening fist fight. The movie opens at a brisk gallop, with Holmes racing to save a woman who’s about to fall victim to a demonic spell being inflicted by Lord Blackwood. Breaking into a building, Holmes must first disarm a sentry before making his way to Blackwood. Hearing the guard approaching his position, Holmes mentally blocks out his line of attack – an upper cut here, a karate chop there, etc. For 10 seconds or so, he charts out the moves, and then in a swift 2-second sequence, Holmes takes the guy down. Precision trumps raw power. Fun stuff.
2. The boxing scene. Holmes has quite the self-destructive streak in Ritchie’s film. In one sequence, as the man mentally falls apart, he boxes for cash against an opponent twice his size. At first, Holmes gets his ass beaten – perhaps because he just doesn’t care anymore – but then he straightens himself up and unleashes a series of slaps and punches, unleashing another 10-point attack plan that incapacitates his opponent. The crowd is stunned. And it’s hard not to giggle that Holmes, utterly outgunned, nevertheless scores the KO.
3. The terrible dinner date. Holmes agrees to meet Dr. Watson’s fiancé for dinner. She challenges him to deduce something meaningful about her. Over Watson’s objections, Holmes launches into a tirade. He comments on the dust on her clothing, which points to a profession. The discolored skin on the ring finger, which suggests a previous engagement. The value of the jewelry she’s wearing. One by one, he breaks down the woman he’s only just met. She’s offended. Watson’s horrified. Holmes finishes dinner alone.
If the whole movie had been like this, Sherlock Holmes would have been quite a different story – a blockbuster about clues, theories, hypotheses and creative problem-solving. A movie you’d want to watch over and over again, seeing if you could paste together all the clues and beat Holmes at his game. Instead, the best thing Holmes has going for it is its pyrotechnics displays. A lot things go boom. Who cares.