Based on the iconic character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes tries to preserve the detective’s milieu and crime-solving genius while introducing a big-budget adventure element. In films like Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie has embraced hyperkinetic action scenes, so his involvement in Sherlock Holmes is surely meant to give the movie a hip, modern-day spin that the studio hopes will help give rise to a new franchise (the movie’s ending lays the groundwork for a sequel).
But while Ritchie (with the assistance of production designer Sarah Greenwood and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot) has recreated 19th-century London as a teeming metropolis akin to the Gotham City of the recent Christopher Nolan-helmed Batman films, the movie’s overstuffed aesthetic soon takes precedence over everything else, including character and story.
Emphasising Holmes’s interests outside of sleuthing – particularly his skill as a boxer – Richie wants Sherlock Holmes to be a dark, edgy, exciting adaptation. Holmes may still have his trademark pipe, but he has ditched the deerstalker hat and bookish demeanour for a roguish manner and buffed-up physique. Likewise, he and Watson are presented as a crime-fighting duo who get involved in elaborate action set pieces that are pitched at a hyperbolic level that quickly becomes numbing.
The desire to turn Conan Doyle’s detective into a complicated action hero is intriguing, but after the recent cinematic reboots of Batman and James Bond, this approach has started to lose its novelty. More crucially, unlike the other two properties, Sherlock Holmes’s personality and psyche aren’t meaningfully explored in the new film. While Downey Jr provides his usual devil-may-care charm, this Sherlock Holmes ultimately feels like an excuse for high-energy action sequences rather than an attempt to breathe new life into a dusty literary icon.
The rest of the cast similarly suffers from Ritchie’s preference for pyrotechnics. As Watson, Law nails the character’s refined air, but the performance isn’t permitted to evolve beyond that. McAdams has played sassy, fetching women in movies as diverse as Wedding Crashers and State Of Play, but she flounders in this period role. As for Strong, his Blackwood is a rather standard-issue villain, leaving the viewer hoping that the filmmakers will do a better job when Holmes’s greatest nemesis, Moriarty, makes his assumed appearance in the next movie.