Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
One of the most beloved fictional detectives of all time has never quite been seen like this!
The diabolical Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) has just been captured by Scotland Yard, with the essential assistance of London's primary leading sleuth, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.). The evil mastermind was in the process of sacrificing a beautiful virgin in a pagan ceremony when the intrepid detective leapt to her rescue along with the assistance of his good friend Dr. Watson (Jude Law) and saved the day. With nothing left to do and no cases bearing any interest, Holmes is left to await the execution of his nemesis and sulk in boredom in his flat, which is soon to be vacated by Watson due to his impending marriage. At last that fatal day of death transpires and Blackwood has one final request before going to the gallows -- to speak with the man who brought about his downfall. He warns Holmes that this is just the beginning, that he will soon return to wreck havoc on London and bring about glorious death to those who dare stand in his way.
Holmes shrugs it off, Watson witnesses the hanging and pronounces the fellow dead, and they return to their normal lives -- until Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) appears at 221B Baker Street and requests Holmes' assistance in finding a ginger haired midget that has given her some troubles. Inevitably, this new case unfolds against the suspected resurrection of Lord Blackwood and the unlikely trio must band together to prevent disaster...
This "re-envisioning" of the classic characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one bound to frustrate more traditional fans of the literary detective, but is a popular choice among those unfamiliar with the "real" Sherlock Holmes. The true Holmes is impassioned and dedicated, single minded and lacking in emotions, excessively fond of Watson but at times brutal in his observations. He respects but deeply mistrusts women and although well-trained in the art of kickboxing, uses his intellect rather than brawn (which he lacks, being of a tall and slender form) to defeat and outsmart his adversaries. Certain portions of the original Holmes do seep into this story in the form of being eccentric, intelligent, and single-minded, but other massive deviations are to be found -- this bulky Holmes in his spare time brawls in street fights for cash (and presumably to stay in practice), frequently engages in hand to hand combat, is often painfully outsmarted and is openly besotted by Irene Adler, whom it is hinted he once had a sexual relationship with. He constantly baits and bickers with Watson, who finds him frustrating and once punches him in the face as payment for their last encounter, in which Holmes intentionally insulted his fiancé. (For which he received a glass of wine in the face before she stormed out.)
Do you note the distinction? I haven't even mentioned the fact that Holmes has occasional moments of comedic stupidity and is a complete slob. But what I find the most unfortunate in this reinterpretation is that the friendship between Holmes and Watson is unrecognizable and lacking in depth. We see them arguing and complaining about one another's habits but there are no real moments between them that indicate Watson does anything more than "put up with" Holmes. In the stories, he found Holmes' bad habits (such as cocaine addiction and not eating) troubling, and his eccentricities on occasion mildly exasperating, but had nothing but a tremendous respect for Holmes both as an individual and as an intellectual genius. The respect between them here is nonexistent, which means the greatest attraction in the originals -- the friendship between two such different but equally formidable individuals -- is gone. This is not the Holmes or the Watson that I know and love.
Having said that, as a crowd-pleaser the film is solid but not without its faults. The action sequences tend to be long and since I am not someone who enjoys brawling, the street fights and slow motion shots of people being pummeled were a bit much. Irene Adler is also woefully underused and I wondered at her reason for being included at all, except to give audiences a female face. The musical score is fun, in a blend of comedic notes and more traditional violin passages, and the sets, costumes, and special effects are top quality. You can tell a lot of money went into the production, from the sweeping back streets to the satin of Irene's gorgeous bustles. The film's finest scene takes place on the partially-constructed London bridge where Holmes engages in fierce swordplay with his adversary. His skills with a rapier are almost never explored outside the canon, so it was fun to see them on display here. There are also other nods to various moments in the stories -- such as Holmes shooting the initials of Queen Victoria into his parlor wall, or the fact that Watson walks with a limp thanks to the bullet he took in India. It's also nice to see an intelligent Watson for once, rather than the usual bumbling fool.
Content is mild apart from violence. There is a lot of bare-knuckle fighting in which we witness slow motion shots of Holmes' intended moves before he makes them (fists pummeling into faces, knees ramming into ribs, etc). Gunshots are exchanged, explosions go off and send characters flying in all directions, and Holmes repeatedly shocks someone with a cattle prod. The most disgusting scene has Holmes and Watson pursuing a villain through a slaughterhouse, in which the camera pans severed pig heads on a slab and their bodies hanging from hooks in the ceiling. We watch a butchering saw tear through fresh carcasses. There's not much blood but we do witness maggots crawling on a dead body. Sensuality includes some low-cut Victorian gowns, a shot of Irene's bare back as she drops her dressing gown, and an embarrassing glimpse of Holmes tied naked to a bed with a pillow over his crotch. Language consists of several mild abuses of deity.
What might concern Christian families more is the heavy emphasis on Satanic activity. Lord Blackwood professes to have arisen from the dead and conversations revolve around "magic," and supernatural forces. One man who defies him is "supernaturally" set on fire. Elsewhere, a police officer appears to be possessed. Though in the end it is all revealed to be a hoax, audiences are treated to portions of demonic ceremonies (the first one includes what is intended to be a human sacrifice; the second is Holmes recreating the ceremony in an attempt to discern its true purpose). There is a lot of flipping through books filled with demonic symbols and pentagrams. It is a fairly decent plot and portions of the movie were very entertaining, but whether or not you will enjoy it depends on how much you love the original inception of the great detective and his loyal friend. If you don't mind more of an "action hero duo" then you will find it a fun way to spend an evening, but if you prefer a quiet evening between dear friends at Baker Street, I suggest you look elsewhere.