Opening with a chase, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and Watson (Jude Law) are on the trail of Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), wanted for the murder of several women. And about to kill another. But even seeing his lordship hang for his crimes is only the beginning. Returned from the dead or with friends in high places, he’s back. And Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) – Holmes’ old flame – may hold the key to stopping a dastardly crime.
Grimily shot, Ritchie’s London looks crime-ridden and brutal. We need a Holmes who can handle himself. Latching on to Conan Doyle’s little-used references to the sleuth’s rough-and-ready skills, Ritchie imbues Holmes and Watson (a former soldier after all) with the edgy violence of the criminals they hunt. It’s a neat idea and immediately separates this from other versions.
But Ritchie’s not forgotten the mind of the master. Rather than let a mystery unfold, he uses the screen to flesh out Holmes’ thoughts. Downey Jr’s voice-over pre-figures how he’ll incapacitate an opponent, then plays it out. Or a scene unfolds only to be re-seen from different perspectives to show how Holmes put it together. It works, propelling the film forward.
And yet Ritchie too often fills the time thus gained with humour and pratfalls. Or stretched-out scenes with McAdams’ Irene Adler, who was for Holmes (Doyle tells us) ‘the’ woman. Better are the action scenes – a dock-side brawl, a work room tussle, even Holmes’ boxing ring bruise-up (not for the squeamish). A bit too blurry and quick-cut - although a beautifully shot cascade of slo-mo explosions redresses the balance.
But the plot creaks and groans under a leaden script with archly bad dialogue from Mark Strong’s villain. Surely an amalgam of plots could have been ransacked from a Conan Doyle original. Or anything from tea time detective telly. But the plot here is shamefully strained. Strong, the go-to-guy for dark brooding English villains, is too pantomime to be feared.
Better are the characterizations from Downey Jr and the revelatory Jude Law. Just watching them together is a joy. For that reason alone the set-up sequel will hopefully happen. Even McAdams rises above the padded nature of her role, hinting at more to come.
Funny and engaging – but still only a so-so film. Sad, as hopes were high. The cast is cool and the quirkiness works. But a plot amid the trickery would have been nice.