I have read much of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon, but was never as taken with it, qua detective fiction, as I was with Agatha Christie. The reason being that Conan Doyle did not play fair. His Victorian detective always solved crimes by means of arcane knowledge that only he could possess - the taste of a particular type of wax used by just one candle-manufacturer in Brittany. As a consequence, the clever reader cannot solve a Conan Doyle mystery in the same way that he can use pure logic and close observation to solve an Agatha Christie novel. So, I read Conan Doyle, as most schoolchildren do, for that sense of Britain at the height of imperial glory but also at the depths of urban degradation - and for that wonderfully subversive idea that Holmes was a bit of a bastard, possibly homo-erotically attached to his sidekick Dr Watson, and addicted to cocaine.
I would suggest that Guy Ritchie's new adaptation of Sherlock Holmes also works best as a mood piece, interspersed by some rather spectacular stunts. His London is out of Tim Burton's SWEENEY TODD - all smoke-filled narrow streets and filthy docks contrasted with the opulent luxury of parliament, Mayfair hotels, and quasi-Masonic lodges. The production design is simply marvellous and makes good use of what is left of Victorian Britain in Manchester and London (from what I could tell). Ritchie also finally finds a suitable object for his obsession with posh chaps bruising with the chavs. He amps up Holmes' boxing, drug-taking and general down-and-dirtiness. Holmes is happy chatting with the local bobby, Clarkie, or with a grimy looking trawlerman. He is altogether more uncomfortable dining in a genteel restaurant.
As an action film, SHERLOCK HOLMES works well too. Ritchie gives us some marvellous stunts that truly make use of the Thames. There are three action set-pieces: one sees a ship slipped off its moorings during a fight between Holmes and a French giant; the second sees Watson set off a string of explosions at a riverside factory; and the final act confrontation between Holmes and his adversary, Lord Blackwood, takes places atop an as-yet-unfinished Tower Bridge. I would have happily paid the price of admission just to see the imagined Victorian vista from the top of that bridge.
Even better than as a mood piece and as an action film, SHERLOCK HOLMES works best as a "bromance" in the manner of all the best action/detective flicks. Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law, as Holmes and Watson respectively, utterly convinced me of their fondness for each other. With such a high-stakes and frankly ludicrous plot swirling about them, it was the credibility of their relationship that anchored the film. I loved their bickering; Holmes' resentment of Watson's new fiancée; and their genuine affection. We truly believe that, as in the books, Watson has brought Holmes back to the edges of respectable society. We also believe, in the first of a few annoying retcons, that Holmes keeps Watson's addiction to gambling in check. When all the explosions were over, I loved the scenes between these two, and I'll be watching the next film for those.
So all in all, I had a rather good time with SHERLOCK HOLMES as a beautifully rendered, action blockbuster, centred around a charismatic relationship between Holmes and Watson. Sure the plot was insane - Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) wants to use black magic to rule the world! But it does at least do that typical Holmes thing where something that seems supernatural can be explained with good old fashioned science. I know that Ritchie has exaggerated Holmes' bruiser antics in the manner of his Mockney flicks, but hey, what's life without a little indulgence? And, it finally looks like Ritchie has found a good excuse to use his slo-mo fight scene style!
That is not to say that there isn't a problem with this film. And that problem is the retconned introduction of Irene Adler - a love interest for Holmes. Anyone with any knowledge of the books will know that this is just plain wrong. But, producers aiming for a target demographic of horny teenage boys will have their way so it looks like we're saddled with her. Ritchie just doesn't do female characters. He doesn't know how to create a well-rounded, interesting woman on screen. And Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler is a victim of this. The concept of the character, nowhere in the books, is a good one - to have a criminal mastermind who has gotten under Holmes' skin. But for a woman to have married as many times as Adler and to have been up to as much crime, she would need to be older - nearer to Holmes' age. I would have loved to see Helen McCrory in this role. But more to the point, Adler was utterly redundant in this flick, except as a nod to the teenage male audience, and in helping to set up the second film. I mean, seriously, imagine a film without Adler. It would've been twenty minutes shorter and the better for it. So for the sequel, I'm hoping that McAdams will be booted, just like that awful Katie Holmes from BATMAN BEGINS, and replaced by someone older and frankly, better at acting. I'm also hoping the scriptwriters give her more to do.
SHERLOCK HOLMES is on release in the USA, UK, Bahrain, Croatia, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Malaysia, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Latvia, Switzerland, Australia, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Indonesia, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Mexico, Romania and Sweden. It opens next weekend in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Brazil and Estonia. It opens on January 14th in Argentina, Greece, Spain, and Turkey. It opens on January 22nd in Finland; on January 28th in Germany and Switzerland; on February 3rd in France and on March 12th in Japan.