I am a Sherlock Holmes fanatic. Well, perhaps I overstate my enthusiasm. I don't belong to any Sherlock Holmes fan clubs or can even claim to have read every single book written. I have, however, read Sir A. C. Doyle's corpus and can claim to have read several stories more than once. Like any intelligent, somewhat cool headed and unconventional individual, I identify with Mr. Holmes' worldview. Unlike Holmes, though, I know a lot more about literature and politics and a lot less about boxing.
It is with this caveat that I saw Guy Ritchie's adventure of my beloved Sherlock Holmes. He chose no better actor for the part than Robert Downey Jr. Holmes is brillian and has a tendency towards cocaine and morphine. Downey Jr... indeed, not so different. Apart from the nose, I would say that the two look alike. After seeing Downey Jr. without his shirt, well, I would also say that one is a lot more muscular than is appropriate for a lanky, coke addled detective who forgets to eat or refuses to eat when faced with consuming cases. Watson, unlike the more fumbling and doddery doctor of the Basil Rathburne persuasion, was also perfectly cast. Watson is sharp, a former military man of note, and only seems somewhat inept next to the almost autistic genius of Holmes. Shouldn't we all?
Holmes proves himself an able man, both through his cunning, his foresight, his gift for disguise, his ability to derive entire theories off the smallest of observations, his knowledge of chemistry, and even through his fists. Is Holmes really the boxing fighting machine who knows how to break a man's jaw for spitting in the back of his head? Therein the problem of this film lies. Rather than allowing this to be a masterpiece by accepting the limitations of Holmes and his world himself, Ritchie makes the mistake of turning to cartoonish action sequences that make Holmes seem more superhero than human super-brain.
In some ways, these long drawn out action sequences are exciting, deeply pleasurable, and well executed in their use of 19th century props that demonstrate a fascination with the newest of technologies -- steam engines, handguns, and a fascination with chemistry. On the other hand, they have a generic action sequence element to them. It might as well be a 19th century James Bond or Superman fighting in the scenes, rather than Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Just because the clothes and the prop set the date, there is something so ho-hum about chemical weapons and a final fight to the finish on a bridge.
My other major complaint is Irene Adler. Indeed. Any Holmes fan knows that the good detective has but one woman he recognizes as superior to all others: The Woman. She appears once as an almost Katherine Hepburn-esque sprite who bests Holmes using similar techniques. Adler is smart. Adler is herself a bohemian. Adler is above all classy. Her appearance as a double agent with a knack for trouble is... well... almost an insult to the real character. Furthermore, the implied relationship of feelings between Holmes and Adler is immature and inappropriate. No wonder Madonna dumped Mr. Ritchie.
Along with Irene Adler's shameless ability to manipulate Holmes is the absence of Holmes' true dark side. The 7% solution. Ritchie's Holmes is angelic compared with the one of Doyle's stories. For shame, again, pandering to the PG-13 rating.
That said, this review sounds harsher than perhaps intended. Was I engrossed in the story from beginning to end? Absolutely. Was I fascinated by the use of the 19th century world? Absolutely. Was Robert Downey Jr. the perfect choice? Absolutely. Did I find myself on the edge of my seat? Absolutely. The story is entertaining and Downey Jr. fantastic. The film has its stunning moments, but as a Holmes' purist, I don't like to see what I treasure most about the detective -- his lack of emotional influence, the lack of romance in the stories, the sheer use of mental power -- bandied about like a cat toy. No, had Ritchie held back a little, showed some restraint in the plot choices and their presentation... this film could have been iconic. Instead, it has the blandness of a Bond film, in which big action sequences are held together by a somewhat convoluted plot involving world domination and a double crossing woman. Move it ahead about 200 years and yes, you pretty much get the average action film of today.