London’s criminal underworld is a well-known and instantly recognisable stomping ground for Guy Ritchie. After the enormous success of his early films Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), he has on occasion become a punching bag for critics and movie-goers alike. Revolver (2005) was (in my opinion justly) universally despised and the mixed reviews of RocknRolla (2008) did not give it the praise which it deserved.Thankfully, his Christmas release sees him back on good form. This time around though the streets and alleyways of the Big Smoke are cobbled, the wealthy travel in horse-drawn carriages and the industrial revolution of our fair capital is in full swing.
Ritchie’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective’s exploits is a Sherlock Holmes unlike any other. Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) are to solve the ritualistic killings of several women by the sinister Lord Blackmoor (Mark Strong). Their nemesis is caught red-handed and duly hanged. Case solved? Far from it. Killing off the bad guy in the first 15 minutes would not have made for a very good film and the powerful black arts which he seemingly has under his control allow Blackmoor to rise from the grave. What then ensues is an intriguing game of cat and mouse as Holmes and Watson unravel the villain’s dastardly Guy Fawkes-like plot to seize control of the fearful British people by an attack on Parliament.
From its very first shots the film hits the ground running. It opens at night, with a high-speed chase along the dimly lit; rain-swept cobbled streets of London. The figure who it appears is being pursued by the police carriage is revealed, by way of an acrobatic role, to be the energetic Holmes. His rather ambivalent relationship with the police continues throughout by the antagonistic exchanges he has with Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan).
Although Downey Jr. retains a pipe, Holmes’ trademark deerstalker is replaced by continual disguises – a bowler hat, an eye-patch, sunglasses, a fake nose and a doctor’s uniform to name but a few! More striking however is the physicality and roughness that he brings to the role – much like Brad Pitt’s gypsy bare-knuckle fighting Mickey in Snatch, Holmes is a nonchalant but intelligent and talented fighter. Ritchie uses a stylized, slow-motion effect reminiscent of the earlier film as Holmes mentally prepares his decisive moves, before enacting them in real time to defeat his hefty opponent.
Robert Downey Jr. does for Sherlock Holmes what Johnny Depp did for pirates. His swaggering confidence, eccentricity and drunkenness are a delight to watch but never do we doubt his skill as a detective. Despite his performance the main achievement of the film is the amusing interplay and close friendship he shares with Dr. Watson – who as a gypsy fortune-teller says are, ‘brothers not in blood, but in bond’.
Jude Law seems more comfortable in a supporting role and foil to Downey Jr. and as a result gives an impressive performance which is effortlessly relaxed and convincing, benefitting from the pressure being on the shoulders of his counterpart.
In some respects this film has many qualities of the buddy movie. The two men have lived together for a long time and share a pit-bull named Gladstone, discuss what clothing suits the other and refer to each other affectionately as ‘old boy’. A strange kind of love triangle is created with Watson’s fiancée Mary (Kelly Reilly), and Watson’s reluctance to tear himself away from the adventures of his past life with his close companion to marry and settle down is never resolved.
The supporting cast do reasonably well but do not match up to Downey Jr. and Law. Eddie Marsan is not given enough time to make his presence worthwhile and the two ladies of the film, Kelly Reilly and Rachel McAdams as Holmes’ ‘muse’ Irene Adler are soon forgotten. It is a shame that although his gruff voice, demonic eyes, vampire/crow-like appearance and Gestapo trench coat lend him a menacing air Mark Strong isn’t a particularly convincing villain. Most ridiculous of all though is the casting of the character of Dredger, a mountain of a man brought in to batter the hell out of Holmes, as French-speaking! The very limited humour that came from the awkward French dialogue was embarrassing and incongruous.
Unlike many of Ritchie’s other films there aren’t half a dozen plotlines going on all at once which is refreshing. Needless to say he does keep a few tricks up his sleeve and employs a clever re-wind and re-playing of the action on several occasions which point out the disguises, deceptions and clever twists of plot that we miss first time round. The director’s characteristically snappy editing is complimented by fiddles, violins and drums and as such the action bounces along to their rhythm.
Unfortunately, at the expense (literally) of the heart-stopping action sequence in which Holmes and Watson narrowly escape losing their heads to a bouncing reel of cable, the producers seem to have spent about £10 on the CGI of the final fight sequence and demise of Blackwood, which doesn’t do justice to the rich authenticity of the interiors and street scenes that we see throughout.
Admittedly there is none of the fruity language you expect from a Guy Ritchie film, but given that a man burns alive and falls from a building, Lord Blackmoor is hanged twice and Rachel McAdams comes within a hair’s breadth of being cut in two Saw-style in a slaughterhouse, the 12A rating of the film is remarkable. But then again, what more could you want from a Christmas movie for your kids?
Irene’s elusive and mysterious employer Moriarty makes off with a vital piece of Blackwood’s chemical weapon at the end of the film which ensures an exciting sequel. Let’s hope it is as entertaining and adventurous as the first. Case reopened…
(3.5 out of 5)