Guy Ritchie has been on a nearly decade-long losing streak, with three flops in three tries after 2001's Snatch. But he managed to convince Joel Silver to give him $90 million to make a blockbuster all the same. It's also his first theatrical film for which he didn't write the screenplay. Considering his awful recent track record, it's fairly remarkable that he emerged with a decent film -- but considering that he appropriated it from some of the most entertaining genre fiction in the English language, it could have been so much more.
The story isn't taken from any of Doyle's stories. Instead, co-scripted by Harry Potter producer Lionel Wigram, it's a tale of black magic and political conspiracy in industrial London. Holmes and Watson, played by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, are both masters of hand-to-hand combat and detection; because it's a big-budget action movie, there are a lot of fistfights, explosions, and other random acts of destruction. Mark Strong is Lord Blackwood, a sinister serial killer who apparently rises from the grave in an attempt to rule the world; Rachel McAdams is Irene Adler, a minor character in the stories, and here a beautiful master criminal who's captured Holmes's obsession. Other than the names Holmes, Watson, and Adler, and the London setting, little in the movie appears verbatim in the stories.
Casting Downey as Holmes signals the filmmakers' intent to capture him through the eyes of his addictions: famous for drug abuse as a young man, Downey's best characters are bundles of tics, neuroses, and obsessions. One scene in a restaurant shows the lonely existence he leads, unable to ignore the smallest detail, hearing every conversation, seeing every gesture, and calculating permutations almost unconsciously -- incapable of turning off. Early in the movie, after having completed a case, he retreats into a near-schizophrenic squalor in his apartment, keeping himself company by capturing fruitflies and firing his gun into the wall. But none of the other characters is nearly so interesting. Watson is fairly boring in the books, and Law is a rather bland actor, so that's hardly surprising. However, the mesmerizing cipher of Adler is reduced when played as a standard femme fatale, and Strong's Blackwood never gets to be more than routinely sinister.
Also, the setting itself looks less like period London and more like the steampunk or fantasy London of Tim Burton or science fiction movies. All the glitz makes Holmes's simple deduction powers seem slightly mundane. And that's the plot's real problem. The plot runs into the classic monster problem: because monsters don't exist in the real world, there are only two ways to explain their existence: real magic, or a guy in a mask -- that's the difference between Jonny Quest and Scooby-Doo. Sherlock Holmes's powers are more impressive when the world around him is more believable.
The movie recalls Alex Proyas's I, Robot (rating: 67), another big-ticket blockbuster which reduced classic source material into a brand name for a blandly enjoyable action movie. Neither I, Robot nor Sherlock Holmes has much to do with Isaac Asimov or Conan Doyle's creations -- you could adapt the same basic plot of a hero battling an evil conspiracy into just about any movie. And Guy Ritchie's self-indulgent tendency toward quick cuts to speed up the action while disorienting the audience is reminiscent of Tony Scott, another British director whose work has aged badly, going from dumb, entertaining crowd-pleasers to just dumb. Hopefully the success of this movie wasn't just dumb luck, and the inevitable sequel will be at least as entertaining. As long as Robert Downey's involved, at least that much is likely.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.