Sherlock Holmes

Dir. Guy Ritchie (Warner Bros Pictures) -- 3.5 STARS

Consider the following two films: in the first, a character known for his logical prowess stands before the audience and explains, “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth,” and proceeds to deduce the unlikely origins of the film’s villain. In the second movie, our hero foils a sinister assassination plot involving large quantities of poison gas, using primarily his fists. Though many would recognize these common cinematic tropes, few would suspect that the first film is J.J. Abrams’s reinvention of “Star Trek,” while the second is Guy Ritchie’s reimagining of “Sherlock Holmes.” This juxtaposition highlights how far these blockbusters have strayed from their source material.

To be fair, this comparison says less about “Star Trek”—in which Spock simply echoes, for the benefit of Trekkies, a line first used in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”—than it does about “Sherlock Holmes.” While the former retains its space ships and lasers, the latter exchanges its sense of mystery in favor of wall-to-wall action.

“Sherlock Holmes” functions more as a nod to the logical bent of Conan Doyle’s series than as a serious portrayal of it. From impossibly large explosions whose implausibility is exceeded only by the number of proximal characters who manage to survive them, to magical African flowers which perform convenient plot functions, this is not a film showcasing mind over matter. On occasion, we witness Holmes’s renowned analytical capabilities, but rarely are these moments integral to the story. Holmes uses his intellect not so much to outwit the villains as to discover their next target, whereupon conflicts are resolved in fantastical action sequences. But none of this is to say that “Sherlock Holmes” is not a good movie —it’s just not one that viewers may be expecting.

As detective-cum-action-hero Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. discovers what many great actors have before him—that one can play essentially the same character in many films, provided that one is entertaining enough to get away with it. In Downey’s case, the intellectually brilliant, heavy-drinking and hard-hitting persona of American arms inventor Tony Stark of “Iron Man” proves surprisingly adaptable to 19th century England. That is to say, all that is needed is a change of accent. This is not a deep role, but a fun one, and Downey recognizes this, delivering lines like “using musical theory, I have created order out of chaos” with just the note of seriousness to make them wholly hilarious.

Jude Law, as Dr. John Watson, Holmes’s trusty sidekick, gives his most memorable performance since 2004’s “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” It helps that the writers chose to grant Watson a more active role in the proceedings than he typically takes in the traditional Sherlock Holmes storyline. In fact, there is no “elementary, my dear Watson” moment in this film. Though Holmes is clearly ahead of the intellectual curve, Watson is self-confident and able to hold his own – even more so than Holmes – in the film’s numerous fight scenes.

The supporting cast performs admirably, but they are overshadowed by the crime-solving pair. Mark Strong plays Lord Blackwood, the villain of the piece, a man determined to take over England and who seems to be employing supernatural powers towards that end. Strong is suitably menacing but entirely forgettable, enabling the duo of Watson and Holmes to steal the show with ease. The two leading men are accompanied by two less-than-leading ladies—Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) as Holmes’s former flame and Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) as Watson’s fiancé—both of whom receive only minimal screen-time in the two hour film. McAdams and Reilly give strong performances that could easily have been explored more extensively, but it’s hard to argue with the choice to let the relationship between Holmes and Watson take center stage.

The ultimate irony of “Sherlock Holmes” is that it is every sort of movie except a mystery. Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the adventures of the sleuth of Baker Street is by turns a thriller, an action movie, and a comedy—and in each of these, it succeeds. But a truly great film would take its cue from what made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series so great—the mind-bending experience of witnessing Sherlock Holmes rewrite the story the audience thought they understood into an entirely new narrative. For now, though, viewers will have to wait for the inevitable sequel to see the great Sherlock Holmes solve an actual case.

—Staff writer Yair Rosenberg can be reached at yrosenb@fas.harvard.edu.

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