One can tell a lot about people by what movie reviews they read.
For instance, one can deduce that you—yes, you—have fine, discriminating taste in your reviews, marking you as highly intelligent and well-bred. Further, the fact that you picked this review, my dear sir (or madam), suggests that you have an interest in Victorian-era crime. Or a fondness for Robert Downey Jr. Or a strange, unfathomable yen for films directed by Guy Ritchie. Or, perhaps, you got lost while shopping online for property in Chérre Locke Homes (just outside Glasgow).
Is that too wide a net for mastering mystery-solving work? Well, don’t blame me. I’m no Sherlock Holmes.
Robert Downey Jr. is Sherlock Holmes this go-round, keeping London safe through hand-to-hand combat skills, a week’s worth of stubble and, of course, his dazzling powers of deduction. Show him the lint from your pocket and he’ll tell you where you went to school. Show him the soles of your shoes and he’ll tell you where you work, what you drink with your breakfast, who gave you your first kiss, when you received it and how you felt about it. In other words, he’s an insufferable show off. Movie audiences barely have a chance to sit down before he corrals his first criminal.
Aided by friend and crime-fighting partner, Dr. John Watson, Holmes uses his towering talents to apprehend the nefarious Lord Blackwood, an apparent Satan-worshipper with a fondness for killing young aristocrats in gruesome, unspeakable ceremonies. Blackwood is tried, convicted and sent to the gallows. But before Holmes can say, "Watson! Bring me my violin!" Blackwood seems to resurrect himself and begins to kill again.
It’s a ticklish case for Holmes—particularly since his gray matter is uncharacteristically preoccupied with more personal matters. Matter one: Dr. Watson is engaged to be married and is preparing to leave 221B Baker Street—a move which Holmes takes personally and a tad petulantly. Matter two: Holmes’ old flame Irene Adler has re-emerged in London, looking pretty as ever and asking for his help in finding a missing man.
Ah, life was so much easier for Holmes when he just had the occasional hound of hell to deal with. …
Sherlock Holmes is, at its core, a buddy cop movie—a Victorian bromance of sorts. (More on that later.) Both Holmes and Watson risk their lives for each other as they are "brothers, not in blood, but in bond." Watson feels that bond, clearly, but as much as Holmes would like for him to stay at 221B, the good doctor remains true to Mary, his fiancée. Holmes’ jealously eventually subsides, I’m glad to say, and Mary grows to appreciate Holmes, too.
Holmes also shows tender affection and even gallantry toward Irene, suggesting that she leave town when her life’s in danger and flinging himself between her and a whizzing saw.
In an age when screen time often replaces face time even in our most precious relationships, Sherlock Holmes hints that there’s something eerily cool in dealing with folks in real space. Sure, we might not be able to look at our companion’s brooch and thus determine that she spent October in Morocco as a government attaché. But most of us can still pick up on the myriad of nonverbal signals we all give off when we talk, allowing us to—well, be better friends or husbands or wives or parents. Keen observation is, I think, a virtue, and the film suggests that it’s a valuable one indeed.
Lord Blackwood isn’t just some well-moneyed madman with a yen for murder most foul. He’s actually portrayed as the devil’s loyal servant, and there’s even a suggestion he might be the spawn of Satan himself. His father confesses that the boy was conceived during a dark, pagan ritual, and that "death followed him wherever he went." We first meet him during an occult ceremony in which a young woman (in the throes of apparent possession) prepares to stab herself.
[Spoiler Warning] Blackwood’s captured and thrown in prison, where he carves arcane symbols on the walls and recites the book of Revelation. He causes his guard to fall into convulsions (by paying him off, we learn later), alarming the prison’s other guards and prisoners. He fabricates his own death so it appears as if he’s risen from the grave, and he kills several more people in what appear to be magical ways.
His short-term goal is to claim control of a shadowy, Illuminati-like organization—the real power behind the British Empire. The group, The Temple of the Four Orders, is a pagan entity consumed with rituals, rites and mysteries (though its members are not portrayed as uniformly evil). The head of the Four Orders tells Holmes that Blackwood can only be captured using a book of spells.
"We don’t expect you to share our faith," one member tells Holmes. "Only our fear."
Holmes is skeptical: He acknowledges to Watson that the case may indeed have a supernatural answer, but to assume so would "twist the facts to suit theories, rather than the theories to the facts." But he’s open enough to the idea that he engages in an occult ceremony himself (complete with pentagrams and crosses and what appears to be a hypnotic trance) to discover the location of Blackwood’s next murder.
Blackwood’s rise to power is accompanied by religious fear and fervor by Londoners. We see priests and laymen alike holding up crosses and signs, protesting Blackwood’s presence—either alive or dead. When Blackwood is set to be hanged, Holmes tells a priest standing by that, "I don’t think you’re needed, Father. Not for this one." When Holmes discovers Blackwood’s destroyed tomb, he jokingly intones, "And on the third day …" He laments London’s spiritual revival, particularly when it comes to once-liberal chambermaids.
When Britain’s News of the World asked Robert Downey Jr. about the nature of Holmes’ relationship with Watson, Downey replied, "We’re two men who happen to be roommates, wrestle a lot and share a bed." The comment sparked a great deal of online speculation as to whether the two are, in Ritchie’s movie, lovers. And the spark ignited the dry timber of pop culture when Downey later told David Letterman, "Why don’t we observe the clip and let the audience decide if he [Holmes] just happens to be a very butch homosexual."
It is possible to read such subtext into Sherlock Holmes—but only if you, as Holmes has already said, "twist the facts to suit theories, rather than the theories to the facts." Watson calls Holmes an "old cock (referring to a rooster) at one point, and Holmes calls Watson a "mother hen." The two relate, at times, in ways we now generally associate with long-married couples, and they realize that, with Watson’s impending marriage, their friendship will change.
But there are no wrestling scenes and no scenes in which the two share a bed. (And, for the record, men sharing beds was pretty common in the 1800s.) Onscreen, there are actually no overt signals that Holmes and Watson are anything more than close friends, roommates and business associates.
Elsewhere: Irene wears gowns that reveal much of her cleavage, and she parades about a hotel room wrapped only in a sheet—which she eventually drops. (Audiences see her back.) Holmes is chained to a bed naked. He tells a chambermaid that the key to his handcuffs are under a pillow—strategically placed to obscure his private parts—and asks her to retrieve it (the key). Holmes and Irene kiss.
Sherlock Holmes, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s popular works of fiction, is an intellectual chap, rarely resorting to shoot-outs or fisticuffs. Sherlock Holmes, in Guy Ritchie’s movie, is by comparison a veritable ninja.
Holmes punches, kicks, slaps, smashes, thumps and zaps bad guys (using what looks to be a makeshift cattle prod) with frenetic vigor, the camera freezing, slowing the action down and skipping ahead to emphasize each terrific blow. Moreover, we often see confrontations twice—once as Holmes visualizes his method of attack, and again during the actual battle. One such battle seems almost a Victorian homage to Fight Club, during which Holmes’ opponent suffers a dislocated jaw and several broken ribs. Another features Holmes smashing the daylights out of his opponents with a pair of canes.
We get a hint, though, that Watson’s the real heavy. When Holmes tries to pick a lock, Watson decides to bash it in instead. His walking stick hides a blade, and we see him shoot guns and beat up people, too.
Characters are smothered, shot at, poisoned, immolated, drowned, hanged, hanged again and nearly blown to smithereens. They fall from upper windows and smash carriages. They brandish knives and fling large hammers at one another. Holmes and Watson are nearly run over by a ship when it prematurely leaves dry dock. The duo, along with Irene, are inches away from being cut to ribbons by a meat packing plant band saw.
Slo-mo scenes involve massive explosions that toss bodies up, down and sideways. Watson’s shrapnel wounds are gory and blood drips from self-inflicted knife wounds during occult rituals. A maggot-covered corpse gets screen time. As do the sometimes dissected remains of frogs, rats, birds and pigs.
Crude or Profane Language
Two misuses of God’s name and one "d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
We see Holmes drink all manner of alcoholic beverages (and get a glass of wine thrown in his face, too). At times the brilliant detective appears to be drunk or hung over. "You do know what you’re drinking is meant for eye surgery?" an exasperated Watson says.
Holmes, Watson and others smoke. Holmes uses Watson’s bulldog to test various anesthetics. Irene drugs a glass of Holmes’ wine. Blackwood fakes his own death with the aid of a strong drug, offs one of his victims using a special poison and plans to kill most of the British Parliament using a deadly gas.
Other Negative Elements
Watson has a bit of a gambling problem. Holmes mentions to Mary that her beau has lost the rent money "more than once." Holmes puts in Watson's standing bet at the underground fights when Watson doesn't show up. And when passing by a game of chance, we see that Watson is clearly tempted to play. (He doesn’t.)
Holmes, meanwhile, has an ego the size of Big Ben. When a man he's fighting spits at him, Holmes takes more than just offense: He stops walking away and returns to pummel him mercilessly.
We ultra-modern culture consumers love our fictional heroes. It doesn’t matter if they’re 10 years old, 100 or 1,000. And if we haven’t seen them for a generation or so, we can’t help but pick them up again, dust them off and … change everything about them.
Mickey Mouse is now set for a makeover in the Wii game Epic Mickey. And rumor has it that Superman, in his next feature film, will turn dark and brooding.
Sherlock Holmes? Well, he’s always been a brooder. So what could Guy Ritchie do to make this 19th century detective a 21st century box-office draw? Make him more violent, of course! Pummel audiences with roundhouse kicks, Victorian nunchucks and outsized explosions! And I haven't even gotten to the sinister Satanic cult and the occult rituals complete with pentagrams and dripping blood. We can’t expect people to sit in a theater and marvel at a man’s bare-brained brilliance for two hours, can we? We don’t have that kind of attention span anymore!
The deerstalker cap is gone, arguably a good thing. And Holmes doesn’t do cocaine and morphine the way Doyle wrote him.
But there’s a certain irony in the idea that in an age when technology is king and high school nerds go to class reunions driving Corvettes and Aston Martins after launching billion-dollar Internet start-ups, we somehow can’t embrace the essentially geeky Holmes. No, we must tweak him with a little Charles Bronson, a little Jackie Chan and a little Severus Snape.
What’s next? Hercule Poirot as an eccentric Belgian weight lifter and sometime rave DJ? Miss Marple as an angsty, twentysomething supermodel?
Maybe I’ll just read a book.