Sherlock Holmes and the mystery of the $80 million movie

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is a shambles – badly directed, nonsensical and far too long.

It’s made tolerable by the reliably charismatic Robert Downey Jr., decent support from Jude Law and Rachel McAdams, gorgeous set design and a smattering of incongruently polished sequences.

I wanted to love Sherlock Holmes, I really did. Downey Jr. seemed spot-on casting for the offbeat detective, Law looked debonair as a not-so-bumbling Watson, and the trailers were packed with hilarity and action.

It looked set to be a reinvigorating adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved series, delivering the concept to a new audience while satisfying the old faithful, akin to Batman Begins.

Sadly, this is one of those unfortunate (and deceitful) cases where all the film’s best moments are in the trailer, depriving the audience of fresh laughs. Besides these comic snippets, it’s not a humorous film, as the marketing would suggest.

In fact, Ritchie’s re-envisioning seems highly confused as to what kind of film it is, muddling around in various genres – mystery, horror, period drama, action and even bromance – without much success. Sometimes it seems an adult version of Harry Potter, at others an olden times Snatch.

This re-envisioning opens suspensefully enough with Holmes and Watson taking down the nefarious Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) who is attempting to sacrifice a damsel in a Satanic ritual.

They hand him over to Scotland Yard, and then find themselves at a loose end for months, with Holmes succumbing to his obsessive compulsive disorder and Watson trying to muster the courage to propose to his sweetheart Mary (Kelly Reilly).

Luckily, Blackwood finds a way to occupy our boys, and they embark on a mission to discover the truth behind the supernatural happenings around London.

Downey Jr. is usually the best part of any film he’s in, no matter how terrible it is, and this is no exception. As Holmes, he gets to do his troubled genius thing, as only he can. He nails this edition of the great detective’s various tics – playing the violin, zoning in on the little details – mixing these believably with martial arts skills.

However, his performance is let down by his voice. His English accent is reasonable but he has a tendency to mumble – a real problem when he is the one elaborating key plot points and twists. This adds to the film’s incoherence.

Holmes and Watson’s relationship is a highlight, with Downey Jr. and Law generating chemistry, providing one of the rare threads of consistency with their banter and brotherly love. Law is a good fit for a dashing Watson, and looks comfortable in the Victorian setting.

McAdams as Irene Adler was not as successful as Holmes’ ostensible love interest, but remained enjoyable as the world-class criminal from New Jersey – the only woman to ever outwit Holmes – balancing ruthlessness with dimpled charm.

Strong, who teeters ever close to typecasting (he played a similar role in Stardust), is a largely forgettable villain, failing to evoke any real menace or sense of ingenuity. One wonders why it takes our hero 139 minutes to untangle his plotting.

At least the tedious case-solving has an attractive backdrop. Nineteenth-century London looks fantastic, winningly blending stylized Gothic design with realistic grime. Pentonville Prison looks suitably ominous and the half-finished Tower Bridge is spectacular, while also helping to ground the often postmodern action in the past.

Action is something you’d expect Ritchie to do well, given his previous films. There are certainly a number of standout sequences that are wonderfully choreographed and realized: Holmes running through London in pursuit of Adler and going through several costume changes, a balletic wrestling match.

These flashes of brilliance suggest Ritchie’s potential as a director, but also emphasize his inconsistency and therefore unsuitability for this particular project. Tim Burton or Stardust’s Matthew Vaughn would have been better choices, having proved their abilities respectively to handle mystery and action comedy in gothic settings.

Sherlock Holmes‘ biggest problem is the lack of firm direction and judicious editing, which fails to exploit the rich resources at hand – excellent cast, well-established series and US$80 million budget. Even worse, it arrogantly ends without proper closure, setting itself up for a sequel it hasn’t earned.

Now, the only mystery is, do you think it’s worth your time and money?

Sherlock Holmes (Studio Village Roadshow, 139 minutes)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan

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