Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird!
It's a plane! It's Sherlock Holmes!
By Roger Ebert
Dec 23, 2009
Ebert Rating: ***
The less I thought about Sherlock Holmes, the more I liked "Sherlock Holmes." Yet another classic hero has been fed into the f/x mill, emerging as a modern superman. Guy Ritchie's film is filled with sensational sights, over-the-top characters and a desperate struggle atop Tower Bridge, which is still under construction. It's likely to be enjoyed by today's action fans. But block bookings are not likely from the Baker Street Irregulars.
One of the comforts of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories is their almost staid adherence to form. Villains and cases come and go up the staircase at 221B Baker Street, but within that refuge, life stays the same: Holmes all-knowing and calm, Watson fretful and frightened, clues orderly, victims distraught, never a problem not seemingly insoluble. Outside is the fabled Victorian London, a city we all know in our imaginations. I think I became an Anglophile on those winter nights when I sat curled up in my dad's big chair, a single lamp creating shadows in the corners of the room, reading the Modern Library edition of the stories while in the basement I heard the comforting sounds of my parents doing the laundry.
Every Holmes story is different and each one is the same, just as every day has its own saint but the Mass is eternal. "Sherlock Holmes" enacts the strange new rites of hyperkinetic action and impossible CGI, and Holmes and Watson do their best to upgrade themselves. Holmes tosses aside the deerstalker hat and meerschaum calabash, and Watson has decided for once and all to abandon the intimacy of 221B for the hazards of married life. Both of them now seem more than a little gay; it's no longer a case of "oh, the British all talk like that." Jude Law even seemed to be wearing lipstick when he promoted the movie on Letterman.
Well, Holmes, like Hamlet, has survived countless interpretations. The character has been played memorably by Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Frank Langella, Peter Cushing, John Barrymore, James D'Arcy, Michael Caine, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Rupert Everett, William Gillette, Stewart Granger, Charlton Heston, Anthony Higgins, Raymond Massey, Roger Moore, John Neville, Leonard Nimoy, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Nicol Williamson -- and now Robert Downey Jr., who is not the least of these.
Downey's Holmes is at once more dissolute and more fit than previous incarnations. Holmes' canonical devotion to cocaine is here augmented by other drugs and a great deal of booze. Yet Holmes has the body of a lithe athlete, the skills of a gymnast and the pugilism of a world champion. He and Watson (who is, you recall, only a doctor, although one with clients who must be puzzled about his office hours) spring readily into action like Batman and Robin.
In a really very good opening sequence, the two burst in upon the fiendish satanist Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) in the act of committing a dastardly act. Blackwood is sent to the gallows and sealed in his tomb, only to reappear (to Holmes' undeniable satisfaction) seemingly still alive. This sets off a series of action set pieces in the streets of London, which have never seemed more looming, dark and ominous; I had the impression Jack the Ripper had just darted out of view.
After the initial apprehension of Blackwood, Holmes retreats to his digs. In Conan Doyle, this is often explained as "a period of study" and implied drug reveries. In Ritchie's version, he trashes his rooms like a drunken undergraduate; they lack only empty pizza boxes. This will not do. My Sherlock is above all fastidious. But never mind. Blackwood's resurrection gives him a new reason for living.
There is also interest from two women: Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), of course, said to be the only woman to ever touch Holmes' heart, and Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), Watson's intended, who may be in for more than she knows. The advent of Mary on the scene sends Holmes into fits of petulance; how dare the doctor prefer a woman to his own fascinating company? Watson has always maintained quarters elsewhere, but in this film, the cozy confines of 221B make his other rooms seem more than ever like a beard.
The Conan Doyle stories are still read, and probably always will be. Most readers get to at least a few. But among moviegoers on Christmas night (traditionally one of the busiest movie nights of the year), probably not so many. They will be unaware that this "Sherlock Holmes" is cheerfully revisionist. They will be entertained, and so was I. The great detective, who has survived so much, can certainly shrug off a few special effects.
Cast & Credits
Holmes- Robert Downey Jr.
Watson- Jude Law
Lord Blackwood- Mark Strong
Irene Adler- Rachel McAdams
Mary- Kelly Reilly
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg. Based on the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Running time: 128 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material).
copyright 2005, rogerebert.com
By David Denby
The New Yorker
January 4, 2010
Guy Ritchie’s hyperbolic “Sherlock Holmes” isn’t a movie; it’s a franchise. Or, at least, a would-be franchise. Arthur Conan Doyle’s material has been grabbed by its velvet collar and thrown into twenty-first-century media culture. Such a turn was inevitable. The subdued charm of Conan Doyle’s hansom cabs, enveloping fogs, and courteous manners, in which the façade of gentility is broken up so delightfully by devilish conspiracies, is not of our age. In Ritchie’s version, the façade doesn’t even exist: his London is rubbled and mucky, with beggars underfoot, and fouled by half-finished industrial monstrosities. Ritchie’s visual style, aided by the cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, is graphic-novel Victoriana: there are steampunk interiors—ironworks and infernal machines with a retrofuturistic look—and dim laboratories in which everything looks rank. The movie is grimly overproduced and exhausting, an irritating, preposterous, but fitfully enjoyable work, in which every element has been inflated. The task that faces Holmes here isn’t merely to solve a murder mystery but to prevent a massacre led by a black-hearted villain who wants to tyrannize England and then take back the American colonies (the bounder!). The plot is perfervid hokum pumped up to justify the movie’s portentous look, and, for extra juice, it has squeezed pop elements from martial-arts movies, “Fight Club,” and “The Da Vinci Code.” There are secret rituals, unspeakable practices, symbols, codes, and many, many fights. Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.), bare-chested, engages in Victorian extreme boxing before a howling arena of Englishmen with bad teeth. Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is a fighter, too, wielding cane and sabre, palm and foot. The two heroes take on a variety of bruisers with karate, jujitsu, and, for all I know, Musti-Yuddha and GongKwon Yusul. Total fighting machines, those Baker Street boys.
The excess and the extravagance extend even to Holmes and Watson’s quarters, which are so cluttered that you can’t pick out a single item in the chaos. But you see the two men clearly enough, and Downey and Law are terrific together. For me, watching them act is the movie’s principal pleasure. Holmes, in this interpretation, is an intellectual with a vast knowledge of arcane matters, but he’s also a brawler and a prankster, and he’s formidably street-smart. Downey, like Johnny Depp, has found a way of remaining hip in the most grossly frivolous and commercial projects—a quick wiggle of the eyes, a half smile, a beat or two of silence, and he conveys that he realizes it’s all nonsense. His attitude is: Yes, I know, but why not come along for the ride? The screenwriters, Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg, have helped create a bond between Downey and the audience with neat little jokes. Holmes’s famous ratiocination is now at the service of a man of action. In slow motion, we see the fighting techniques he plans to use against an opponent (he narrates the blows for us, insisting on the logical rightness of each one); then we see his attack again, in lightning-quick flashes.
Challenged by Downey’s energy, Jude Law, who often seems aimless in his movies, comes fully up to speed. He’s virile and quick-witted, and his Watson, if not Holmes’s equal in brainpower, comes close to him in daring. Their repartee evokes the banter of lovers in a screwball comedy; they flirt outrageously but chastely. Watson, it seems, wants to get married (to Kelly Reilly, of the freckled cheek and bosom), and Holmes tries to break up the engagement. He can’t bear to let Watson go, and Watson has some doubts, too—they have always had so much fun getting into scrapes together. But Holmes, eunuch-cold for years, also feels the allure of a woman: Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), his long-lost inamorata, turns up as a criminal. At the end, the principals live to fight again, and Professor Moriarty, who is present but mostly unseen throughout the movie, waits patiently in the dark for the inevitable sequel that will reveal his face.
Far From Holmes
By KYLE SMITH
New York Post
December 24, 2009
Who the deuce decided to filter Sherlock Holmes through “Batman & Robin”? “Sherlock Holmes” dumbs down a century-old synonym for intelligence with S&M gags, witless sarcasm, murky bombast and twirling action-hero moves that belong in a ninja flick.
Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr on the set of "Sherlock Holmes"
Directed to do frantic American-buddy-movie shtick by Guy Ritchie, who has never before ruled a big-budget production, the normally brainy Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law compete rather than complement, each spewing his deductions like “Rain Man” meets “Good Will Hunting” instead of leading the audience through the elegant process of solving a mystery. Somebodytellthesedirectorsthattalkingfastdoesnotmakeyousoundsmart.
Holmes (Downey) and Watson (Law) are on the trail of Lord Blackwood (an unremarkable Mark Strong), a satanic serial killer who, just before getting his neck stretched on the gallows, warns Sherlock that from beyond the grave the mayhem will continue, with three further deaths to be laid at the door of 221b Baker St.
Holmes — a slovenly fly-catching weirdo instead of a detached don — charges through several fight scenes that are more Stallone than Sherlock, and the frenzied chop of the editing blurs the brawls.
A megabudget franchise movie has to have more action than a public-TV mystery, but in seeking a big American audience, Ritchie is like one of those Londoners who, when imitating a Yank, affects an exaggerated drawl supposed to connote "Texan" that lands closer to "lobotomy ward." And what's with his never-been-to-London staging? One minute the characters are tumbling out of the Houses of Parliament, the next they're miles away, at the under-construction Tower Bridge.
For Holmes to be Holmes, he has to figure out solutions, not kick them in the teeth. Assuming Edwardian London was crawling with personal trainers and fully equipped with Nautilus machines, how would the world's most devoted bookworm acquire stone-slab abs? Are there steroids in his Darjeeling?
Watson, a problem character — a straight man, a whiteboard for the answer to be sketched upon — here loses his (limited) everyman appeal and becomes a sort of knockoff Holmes, occasionally beating the master to the answer while equaling him in fisticuffery and woefulness of badinage: "Relax, I'm a doctor."
They argue about whether a little fellow is a dwarf or a midget, swap hoary one-liners ("they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity") and discuss whether Sherlock's "depravity know[s] no bounds." They agree that it does, and are proved correct when Sherlock finds himself lashed, naked and contented, to a bed.
Rachel McAdams, as Sherlock's canny but devious ex, adds no spark as she asks for help with a case that involves a shadowy professor who is trying to trap Holmes. If you're going to cast waify little sparrows like McAdams, don't expect us to buy it when she clocks a trained assassin and he collapses as if he's been Michael Strahan'd. (If Kathy Bates turned up, though, the average hired killer would put in for a hardship bonus, or maybe just call in sick.)
The best parts are in the third act, during a semi-satisfying decoding of Lord Blackwood's nefarious schemes, but the rush to disentangle everything (together with an equally crazed bit of place-setting for the sequel — invariably a sign that even the filmmakers know they didn't get it right this time) arrived after I'd lost interest.
Anyway, the payoff is the one section of the script that is too Victorian — reeking of far-fetched potions and antidotes. The rest of the movie could scarcely have been more off-base if Sherlock had worn a backwards Yankee cap instead of a deerstalker and Watson had inquired of him, "What up, Holmes?"