Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes stars Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes with Jude Law as Watson. Holmes efforts lead to the capture of a cult leader and black magic practitioner named Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) who has been on a killing spree through grotesque human sacrifices. At the same time, Dr. Watson is engaged and Holmes is doing his best to wreck the engagement to keep his much needed assistant at his elbow.

Before Lord Blackwood is executed, he promises Holmes that there will be three deaths that Holmes can’t stop that will change the world and drive Holmes mad. Watson declares Lord Blackwood dead, but then three days later Blackwood’s tomb has been found empty and the promised deaths begin.  Holmes has to unravel the puzzle and is plunged into a world of dark conspiracies and the occult as he searches for the truth. 

Perhaps the best way to describe the movie is to list some of its key deviations from traditional Holmes stories:

  • Holmes uses his fists far more than usual. True enough. In A Study in Scarlet, it does mention that Holmes is an expert boxer, but the thread seems almost to have been forgotten by Doyle in later stories. But in Sherlock Holmes , Holmes has as many martial arts moves as Jackie Chan. However, Guy Ritchie did a good job working Holmes thinking process into his fighting which made it easier to swallow.
  • He and Irene Adler are an item and Adler, rather than being a dancer who gets into a scrape with a Bohemian king, is an international criminal.
  • Holmes’ traditional portrayal as a drug addict is gone. And instead,  in this movie, we find Holmes having to guard against Watson’s gambling habit to make sure Mrs. Hudson gets the rent money.
  • Holmes is intentionally trying to sabotage the engagement of Mary Marston, not so in the books.

There are other differences. Holmes definitely doesn’t act like he lived in the Victorian era for one. Despite these issues, I found myself oddly enjoying the movie. Perhaps, it’s because there’s a long-running tradition of messing around with the character for dramatic portrayals going back to William Gillette who wrote the first dramatic adaptation. He asked permission from Doyle to marry Sherlock Holmes off and was told, “You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him.”

And so it’s been. We’ve had all sorts of Sherlock Holmes films and television shows. There’s been a young Sherlock Holmes movie, there’s been an animated Sherlock Holmes Television series featuring Holmes in the 22nd Century with a robot Dr. Watson. We’ve had stupid Holmes and brilliant Watson movies, and of course our post-modern Holmes over on the BBC. There have been  pastiches that have taken the character in all directions.

Yet, the true Holmes of fiction is well known to most people, so while movies and television can play with Holmes’ character, they can’t really redefine it in the eyes of the public, just as Patrick Stewart’s King of Texas didn’t make anyone thing King Lear was really set in Texas.

Similarly, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes could best be understood by bringing one of fiction’s greatest heroes to the biggest moneymaking arena there is: The Summer Popcorn movie.  By this account, Sherlock Holmes was a fine film. It was an action packed thriller with plenty of plot twists and engaging story that holds your attention to the end. If there’s any film I’d compare it to, it’d be be the Basil Rathbone vehicle The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes which was a solid action thriller for 1939. Sherlock Holmes show how much more Hollywood has amped up its performance and how much more action audiences demand.

Perhaps, the story’s truest touch was the its portrayal of the close friendship between Holmes and Watson.  While not as warm as the Rathbone-Bruce or Brett-Hardwicke portrayals, or even the Ronald Howard and Howard Marion Crawford performances from the 1954 syndicated Television series,  the Holmes-Watson interplay between Downing and Jude Law was better than the BBC’s vision from Sherlock.

Overall, the results of Robert Downey, Jr. and Direct Guy Ritchie playing with the Sherlock Holmes character turned out surprising well, even if they won’t make me forget Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0  stars.

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