Review: Sherlock Holmes, 2009, dir. Guy Ritchie

Guy Ritchie, the proud creator of notoriously stylized gangster films like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, is not a director well known for his relationship with the concept of “restraint”. So the fact that my fingers are about to type the sentence, “Ritchie shows uncharacteristic restraint in his latest film,” comes as a great surprise to me.

But there you have it. In giving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, the Guy Ritchie treatment, Mr. Madonna actually reigns himself in somewhat. Somewhat. This is not the same kind of shift in sensibility that, for example, Quentin Tarantino appears to have embraced in Inglorious Basterds; with Sherlock Holmes, the Ritchie flash and flair school of filmmaking is still in session, but the proceedings in the director’s latest feel downright disciplined– at least in comparison to his previous films. Maybe part of this comes from certain stylistic touches actually having an appreciable value to the film other than fitting the criteria of “cool”. Slow motion sequences wherein Holmes dispatches a foe are only shot in such fashion because we are actively watching the detective’s unfolding thought process; Ritchie uses this particular touch to depict Holmes’ powerful, calculating mind at work, rather than to add panache for panache’s sake.

It’s flair well-applied, bringing us closer to Holmes and drawing us into his perception of the world around him. Portrayed by Robert Downey Jr, Sherlock Holmes is a man bored with the world around him; he longs for a mystery capable of challenging his vast and nigh-indomitable intellect, and in between jobs that are worthy of his attention (at one point he is presented with a pile of cases, which are so simple to his mind that he immediately resolves each as they are read to him), he busies himself with experiments and activities that are either bothersome or downright unwholesome to others. The detective clearly cares little for what others think of his behavior as well as his perpetually unkempt and disheveled appearance. Perhaps it’s to his advantage. Regardless, what truly defines this incarnation of Holmes can be identified in Downey’s undeniable magnetism and charisma, that “movie star” presence that he brings to every character whose shoes he steps into, from Harry Lockhart to Tony Stark. The effect is no less noticeable in his interpretation of the great detective: He’s almost loathsome at times, and yet he’s insanely likable even at his most misbehaved.

For me, that presence is both the biggest selling point of the film as well as its greatest weakness. No, I’m not saying Downey’s performance is bad at any point; the flaw with his acting actually stems from the rest of the picture, as well as the cast, both of which are only just capable of containing or standing up to him. Holmes springs into detective action when the nefarious Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), having been hanged and pronounced dead, rises from his grave and people begin dying suddenly and mysteriously just as he’d predicted prior to his execution. It’s a more than serviceable whodunit, albeit one where our hero’s brains are valued equally to his fighting skills (which, contrary to claims to the opposite effect, do in fact have an origin in Holmes canon), and it remains a fun romp from start to finish. However, at times Ritchie seems to run out of things for Holmes to do, as though he is woefully unprepared to direct a charisma like Downey’s, and at these points the movie drags.

Is it a coincidence that those moments of weakness tend to manifest when Downey finds himself in the company of actors other than Jude Law? Law hasn’t been this engaged in a character in what feels like years (maybe 2004’s Closer), embracing both the propriety of the character as well as the physicality demanded of him, and it’s refreshing to see him serve as the straight man foil to Downey’s unapologetic ne’er-do-well. It’s not as though their Odd Couple relationship reinvents the wheel, so to speak– Watson is neat, orderly, proper, while Holmes is exactly the opposite of each characteristic. Rather, what makes the pairing work lies in the chemistry both actors share with one another. The ways in which these actors communicate clearly map out a long-term partnership and friendship without relying on ham-fisted dialogue to deliver that precious knowledge, and the well-worn elements of their association become invisible in the company of their endlessly entertaining bantering and deducing.

The greatest joys of the film lie in watching Holmes reason his way through situations and conflicts, be they confrontations physical or mental. As fun as it is to see the detective employ his brand of martial arts to devastate his foes (and there admittedly is great merit in seeing the bookish and unimposing man dispatch his much more intimidating adversaries), watching his logical manueverings unfold is more thrilling. I applaud Ritchie’s efforts towards crafting an action hero who uses the actuity of his mind as much as the strength of his muscles, but the director plays things safe and doesn’t fully break out of his action-oriented comfort zone; Downey does too much ass kicking, and not enough detecting and reasoning. Ultimately, Sherlock Holmes is an exciting if slightly over-long film, but in the inevitable sequel I hope that Ritchie expands on this picture’s deductive sequences and makes them more the focus than one-note action beats.

5 thoughts on “Review: Sherlock Holmes, 2009, dir. Guy Ritchie

  1. An excellent review. I happen to think the movie too is excellent and did not drag at all. It shows the era without the usual doom and gloom. It is depicted as a vibrant positive era. The sets were brilliant and one felt as if embroiled in another world. Holmes in the books was an action hero- he was a pugilist, swordsman, and a scruffy eccentric in the habit of firing pistols inside his house. The satirical list of deductions as the penny-farthing era villain was hanging onto the bridge for his life, was comical and brilliantly rendered by RDJ. The prison scenes were great, Adler’s proficiency with the switchblade superbly cinematic and the side-street carnival was convincing.
    This review is by far the best one of the many I have read, but I am somewhat more endorsing of the movie. Downey was greatly charismatic, as the reviewer said. As a big fan of Conan Doyle I would like to say the movie was very accurate indeed as to the nature of Holmes, one of the most endearing characters in fiction. Did you know that Conan Doyle played first class cricket for the MCC and once dismissed WG Grace? Just thought I would throw that in for the hell of it, although American readers might wonder what the hell I am talking about. I wonder if Downey has ever watched cricket. His research into the part is commendable and he is as much of a genius as he says Doyle is. Am I the only one to have noticed that Mr Downey retains some Chaplin-esque movements for Sherlock Holmes?

    • It seems like there’s backlash against Ritchie’s action-hero interpretation of Holmes, as though the idea of Holmes as anything but a scholarly gentleman is resolutely offensive. But Ritchie’s characterization of Holmes, as well as Downey’s excellent portrayal, both understand the character better than the average supposed Holmes enthusiast. Ultimately the backlash is puzzling to me, so your comment is encouraging to me.

      Honestly, I had a problem with the sets. When the film shoots against real, physical sets, everything does play exactly as you say, fully enveloping the audience and putting them square in the middle of Holmes’ London. But key moments– most particularly the climactic battle between Holmes and Blackwood– film against CGI backdrops, which feel so noticeably computer generated that their origins betray the scene’s ability to draw viewers in. At least, that’s how it felt for me. That scene specifically works, but I can only imagine how much better it would have felt on a fully practical set.

      I liked it quite a bit but as you can see I had a couple of problems with it. That said, those flaws seem really minor when considering just how great RDJ’s performance is (and on that note– it’s really great to see Jude Law turn out a great role, too).

  2. Thats right (or as Sherlock would say “precisely”) about the sets Andrew but its hard to find a movie that doesn’t have computer-generated backdrops. In a way it made it like a vaudeville performance and somewhat theatrical and antique. The look of triumph on Mr Downey’s face and casual side-stepping of the object crashing from above as he did his deductions was priceless. He knew it was coming. How he did not get an Oscar nomination is beyond me. As a Conan Doyle enthusiast I was completely capitivated by this movie and saw it three times in a week at the cinema. I too would like a few more deductions in the sequel, so I thought your observation was on the mark there. Thanks for writing a very articulate and fair review. I have been following it on the net and have been dumbstruck by the imbecitiy of most of the write-ups. Its great to see Downey praised for a sublime performance. As a Sherlock fan I am now a Downey fan and look forward to Ironman which is not normally my kind of movie.

    • When a movie turns you to a genre you generally aren’t that interested in, then you know that it’s something special. Glad to hear that Holmes has made you want to give something new a chance, and let me just say thanks for all the kind words!

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