The fact that the best thing about the new “Sherlock Holmes” movie is Robert Downey Jr. will surprise just about no one. The guy not only reeks talent and charisma, but he also happens to be in the midst of one of the greatest career winning streaks in recent Hollywood history.
Now, the fact that Robert Downey Jr. starring as the world’s most famous detective isn’t a full-blown success…that’s a downright shocker.
But not even the absurdly gifted Mr. Downey Jr., in full-on crime solving mode, can solve the film’s confounding script problems. “Sherlock Holmes” is an uneven feature that will thrill you in some spots, and bore you in others.
In the hands of director Guy Ritchie, the ‘consulting detective’ is more Steampunk Sherlock than the genius of Baker Street. It’s also more an action film than a Whodunit. RDJr and Jude Law have tremendous ‘buddy movie’ chemistry as a sort of Victorian Age Riggs and Murtaugh, but Ritchie can’t maintain a consistent pace. The result is a movie that feels much longer than its 134 minute running time.
The movie begins with Holmes in full sprint, racing against the clock to try and prevent the latest in a string of murders linked to dark magic. The villain in the story is Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who claims to have supernatural powers. To prove his point, after his execution in full view of numerous witnesses, Blackwood comes back from the dead and spooks London into a state of panic. So begins the chess match with Holmes, who already has a full plate of issues to deal with.
Namely, the fact that he’s a hot, manic-depressive mess.
As Downey Jr. portrays him, Holmes is a social moron who can barely behave in public. In-between cases, he locks himself away as a hermit in his townhouse, alienating his few remaining friends with incredibly insensitive remarks and trying all sorts of experiments on Watson’s beleaguered English bulldog. He broods and he brawls (who knew there were Fight Clubs in turn-of-the-century London?) aimlessly, until his unparalleled skills of deduction are called upon.
Imagine Batman if it was Raymond Babbitt under the cowl instead of Bruce Wayne, and you have a pretty good gauge on this iteration of Holmes.
You can see Downey Jr.’s fingerprints all over the character. From the rapid-fire discourse with Scotland Yard’s Finest to the razor-sharp volleys with Law, it’s unmistakably Robert Downey Jr. He seems to be having a great time playing the role, which in a lot of ways, is like a deranged 19th century take on Tony Stark. He’s the smartest guy in the room, and he’s happy to make sure you know that. It’s the latest version of the thinking man’s action hero that’s become so fashionable in movies these days. Except of course, that this action hero may actually be insane.
At times however, Downey Jr.’s performance teeters dangerously closer to smarm than charm. Whether in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Zodiac” or “Iron Man,” the actor has always had an innate sense of where that fine line between sarcastically charming and overbearing was. That’s not always the case here.
Jude Law on the other hand, is pitch perfect as Holmes’ loyal yet exasperated pal. Law is not so much the straight man as the sane man in this dysfunctional friendship. Watson is so loyal, he even tolerates his old friend humiliating his fiancé with an impromptu interrogation during dinner. Holmes can’t bear the thought of his dearest friend actually wanting to be with someone else. The relationship between Holmes and Watson, fittingly, is the high point of the film.
Lord Blackwood, who warns, “Death is only the beginning,” intends to use his New Order to take over Parliament and then reclaim England’s former colony across the pond. The normally reliable Strong, so good in “Body of Lies” and Ritchie’s last movie “RocknRolla,” is a huge disappointment as the movie’s main heavy. Looking like a CGI composite of Andy Garcia in “The Godfather Part III” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” Strong seems to lose his grip on the character with each passing scene. By the end of the film, he was squarely in generic movie-villain territory.
As Irene, a woman from Holmes’ past with her own agenda, Rachel McAdams adds depth and personality to an underwritten role. Eddie Marsan also makes the most of his limited work as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade.
With four credited writers, one would think some coherency could have been achieved with the screenplay. Instead, the story is the biggest weak link in the return engagement of Sherlock Holmes. There’s little, if any, suspense. By the time all is revealed, most of the audience will have figured it out.
Ritchie may not have had the best handle on the story, but he absolutely nails the look of the picture. The London where Sherlock Holmes deciphers clues is a filthy, grimy beast of an industrial town, with harsh gray skies and craggy buildings. With the exception of the climactic scene, the CGI work used to embellish the set design is consistent.
The action sequences are also well done, especially a fight scene between Holmes, Watson and several thugs inside an apartment.
Ritchie should have thought twice before repeating two fight scenes – in slow motion – as a way to highlight Holmes’ ability to anticipate and analyze his opponents’ moves and weaknesses. Downey Jr.’s voiceover explained every move in detail as it happens in real time. Repeating it was a waste of time and diluted the impact.
While not a rousing success, “Sherlock Holmes” certainly has its moments. And with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in place, it’s not hard to envision more adventures (several tantalizing scenes in this movie set the stage for what could be the next chapter). But with those two stars top-lining the potential franchise kickoff, expectations are justifiably raised. Presuming there is a next outing, closer scrutiny to the script should be made a priority.