2009 comes to a close at the movies not with a whimper, but with a bang. And while you may think it’s due to a blockbuster movie featuring beautifully animated CGI characters that leap off the screen and impress with their stunningly life-like appearances, Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel actually has nothing to do with it. Instead, the year in movies goes out in fantastic style with action, humor, and thrills… Sherlock Holmes is the best big-screen adventure since Star Trek. (And yes, I did see Avatar.)
The movie opens right in the thick of the action with Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) running through the streets of a Victorian London evening. He and his partner, Watson (Jude Law), are racing to stop the ritual sacrifice of a young woman at the hands of Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Fisticuffs ensue and they manage to save the virginal young lady and capture the villainous Blackwood who is subsequently sentenced to hang. The end.
Actually, that’s just the first ten minutes, and the movie rarely lets up for the next two hours. The Blackwood case is the last for the detective duo as Watson is leaving the fold to get married. He’s delayed his departure only long enough to see Blackwood hang, but mere days after the execution word of the dark Lord’s apparent rise from the dead sends the populace of London into a panic. Fear of the supernatural takes hold as Blackwood’s plans for death, destruction, and world domination brings an inquisitive Holmes and a hesitant Watson back together again.
The central storyline featuring Holmes and Watson trying to stop a mystical madman flirts with themes of science vs religion and the government using fear as a motivator for control of the people, but the real story here is the relationship between the two men. This isn’t an origin tale but instead we meet the pair at the end of a long run of cases and adventures. Holmes knows nothing but the hunt for knowledge and answers while Watson is ready to hang it all up for the promise of a quieter life with his soon-to-be wife. The two men aren’t quite ready to give up on each other though as evidenced by Holmes’ constant ploys to attract Watson’s interest in the case. Their relationship is built on mutual respect, admiration, and the simple joy of being around a friend, and Downey and Law nail it with perfection. Their onscreen chemistry is aces, and you believe these two guys have a long history together and still manage to enjoy each others company.
Downey seems at this point to have the audience eating out of his hands with roles like this and Tony Stark in the Iron Man films. His handling of the rough around the edges but lovable anti-hero has netted him two solid franchises (and yes I’m including this one because it will be big and there will be a sequel), but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t long to see him return to something smaller and more character driven like his role in Wonder Boys. The real surprise here though is Law. I don’t even know the last time I enjoyed seeing Law in a movie (but it was probably in The Talented Mr. Ripley), but he truly takes what could have been a thankless sidekick role beside Downey and turns it into an amiable and engaging character who becomes just as integral to the film as Holmes himself.
While both lead characters are fairly well fleshed out with hints of gambling and morphine addictions haunting their past and present, the same can’t be said for the pair’s third wheel, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). She’s Holmes’ ex and a mischievous, deceitful, trouble-making thief to boot. Her generally light-hearted bad-assery is on full display here, but her past with Holmes is only hinted at. Whether an unintentional gap in the writing or an intentional tease for a sequel the issue is little more than a minor quibble for the movie. Strong’s Lord Blackwood comes off a bit better as the film’s baddie complete with a complicated back story, menacing glare, and a charismatic glower.
The action in Sherlock Holmes comes in three varieties… verbal, fight scenes, and set-pieces. The verbal sparring courtesy of Holmes and Watson is stellar with the two conversing with an energetic wit that helps keep the viewer’s attention firmly on the actors and their playful performances. The fights include the highs of a buff and believable Downey scrapping with hooligans in and out of the boxing ring and the lows involving some incredibly tight shots and fast editing that occasionally leave you unsure as to the details of the brawl. Director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, RocknRolla) keeps his usual stylistic flourishes in check for most of the film but lets them loose for a couple fight scenes when he slows the film down to show Holmes mentally visualizing his attack then replays it at normal speed as it actually happens. The effect works really well and Ritchie resists the urge to overuse it.
There are a handful of big set-pieces in the film and they all succeed in catching your attention and raising your pulse. The best involves a series of explosions caught in slow motion as Holmes races to save someone… the blasts seem so close you can almost smell Downey’s hair burning. The weakest of the bunch involves a fight on an unfinished bridge high above the Thames, and it’s the only time the film’s CGI work stands out as fairly obvious. The rest of the movie features quite a bit of it but it blends in so well that the illusion of Victorian London is impressively believable.
Sherlock Holmes truly is Ritchie’s ticket into the A-list of Hollywood directors. He’ll need one more movie like this (probably the inevitable sequel) and then he’ll have the pick of big-budget films to make. I don’t know if that should count as a success for the man or as a resignation of his personal style, but I would argue for the former. Ritchie’s first film written by someone else is also his most accessible, and while he injects bits of his style into the fight scenes he seems to have matured enough as a director to know when to dial it back in again. (Although I wouldn’t have minded seeing Holmes call someone a ‘fookin slag.’)
The bottom line here is that this movie is a ton of fun. That element gets forgotten sometimes in the morass of dry critical opinion (like you see above), but it’s really one of the most important parts of going to the movies… the escape, the entertainment, and the pure joy of the experience. I haven’t held such a steady smile on my face throughout a movie since Star Trek. Like that movie, Sherlock Holmes is easy but engaging entertainment with a few flaws. (Thankfully it doesn’t have the over-abundance of contrivances and coincidences found in Star Trek though.) Downey and Law make an incredibly appealing and enjoyable team, and regardless of where you stand on the film’s authenticity towards the source material there’s no denying the sheer amount of fun you’ll have while watching it. Ride the end of 2009 out with a bang and go see one of the most entertaining movies of the year… go see Sherlock Holmes.
The Upside: Fantastic chemistry between Downey and Law; funny, thrilling, exciting, and never a dull moment; strong musical score
The Downside: Some of Holmes’ leaps in logic weren’t explained well enough; some fights were edited too tightly; some story aspects seem to exist strictly as fodder for a sequel; the dog fart was unnecessary
On the Side: This is the first Sherlock Holmes movie to hit US cinemas since 1988’s Without A Clue starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley as Holmes and Watson. It’s a funny as hell movie and you should check it out.