Sherlock Holmes is the best superhero movie of the year.
It may be set in Victorian England and feature nothing in the way of spandex or capes (well, okay, there were plenty of the latter in those days), but it is. The film reminds us that Sherlock Holmes is a formidable force of human intellect and skill, and he and Dr. Watson form a dynamic duo that can take on even a supernatual supervillain.
The game that is afoot is one of logic and reality versus the seemingly magical. And dark magic it is indeed, as Holmes & Watson thwart the occult killing spree of Lord Blackwood, only to have him rise up from the grave (after Watson himself pronounces him dead!). But undead villains are the least of Holmes’s problems, as Watson is set to marry soon, thereby putting an abrupt end to their fruitful partnership.
The plot is not a direct adaptation of any of Conan Doyle’s stories, but several characters from across the series are picked and deployed in new ways. It’s not quite revisionism like this year’s Star Trek, but just like Star Trek it’s a relentlessly fun, smart romp from start to finish.
And don’t let the action-heavy trailers fool you; this movie is more brains than brawn. Eschewing super-complicated plot-twists for a solid, lean pulp mystery, Ritchie lets the characters, both big and small, shine.
Holmes here is played by Robert Downey Jr., an odd choice physically; Mark Strong who plays the sinister Lord Blackwood makes a better fit for the classic interpretation of Conan Doyle’s Holmes. But believe me, Downey is the perfect choice for the role. He brings the essence of the Sherlock Holmes character to the screen in ways that have never been done before; his Holmes is a mad, moody genius, a pulp hero — a pulp superhero — who solves mysteries with wit and brains and his fists. But even the breathtaking fisticuffs are given a cerebral twist that makes their impact — pardon the pun — extra special.
Let me put it this way: Downey is Iron Man good. He’s Jack Sparrow good.
But a Sherlock Holmes movie would be nothing without a good Dr. Watson. After decades of seeing Watson portrayed as bumbling, clueless sidekick to a cool and commanding Holmes, it is such a relief to see that someone actually bothered to remember that John Watson in the books was an intelligent man who could hold his own in a fight. Watson here is Holmes’s partner, not some facile plot device so the audience can be explained things, and Law plays him with the same aplomb that Downey brings to Holmes. There’s surprising nuance at play here too, with allusions to Watson’s gambling habits and his co-dependent relationship with Holmes. It isn’t just played for laughs, and adds good depth to both characters.
The one question I had in my mind going in was if Rachel McAdams would be little more than eye candy. I shouldn’t have worried, really, as McAdams is utterly believable as Irene Adler, the woman who is Holmes’s match, and while there isn’t quite enough of her it’s all good. Mark Strong does a fine job channeling everything from Dracula to Dr. Doom and not making it seem campy, while supporting characters from Kelly Reilly as Watson’s fiancee to William Houston as a witty constable make their mark.
It’s odd for a big-budget Hollywood production to surprise you with its artistic elements, but Sherlock Holmes does some of that too. Guy Ritchie is known for his stylish direction, and there are some sequences here that are quite, well, lyrical. So maybe ‘beautiful’ is not the first word that would be used to describe an extended sequence of explosions, but hey, that’s what it was.
And thank god someone else in the world appreciates seamless CGI that doesn’t scream, “LOOK AT ME!” — the Victorian London recreated here in all its sooty, shambly glory, is a sight to behold, half-finished tower bridge and all, and shot with a fine balance of drama and reality by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (who did similarly understated and masterful work in Constantine).
But the film is carried by Hans Zimmer’s score, which is just plain brilliant. Instead of formal orchestras and big sweeping compositions, Zimmer constructs an intimate, earthy, and — much like its protagonist — witty soundscape of fiddles and plucked violins, folk songs and exotic riffs reflecting the orientalism of the times.
Guy Ritchie has pulled off an unexpected feat: his two-fisted, salty and sexy version of Sherlock Holmes ends up being the most honest and faithful interpretation of the spirit of the character yet.
Comparisons will inevitably be drawn to films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek, and Iron Man — and they’ll all be true. Because just like those films, Sherlock Holmes is the best kind of blockbuster: smart, fun, energetic and sometimes even surprising in its artistry.