Apparently tired of his moderate but waning success as a fringe filmmaker, Guy Ritchie has gone mainstream with “Sherlock Holmes,” his sixth feature and the first one he didn’t write himself. Gone is most (but not all) of the frenetic editing and bone-crunching violence that marked films like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” where it often seemed like Ritchie was trying very, very hard to be awesome. Now he has relaxed a bit and made something palatable to a mass audience without sacrificing his famed energy and irreverence, featuring one of Hollywood’s most popular actors as one of the world’s most popular fictional characters. What could go wrong?
Well, a lot, given Ritchie’s usual penchant for excess, but let’s put that behind us. His “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey Jr. as the legendary sleuth and Jude Law as his loyal Dr. Watson, gets back to the basics of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories — Holmes was an amateur boxer and an opium enthusiast — while giving it a modern bromance sensibility. With Holmes childishly jealous that Watson is engaged to be married, trying to sabotage the relationship while letting his manners and personal hygiene go to seed, this isn’t your father’s Sherlock Holmes. And yet it’s quite faithful in its way, too, the Victorian London setting teeming with life (and lowlifes), Holmes delighting observers with his marvelous powers of deduction, constantly saving Scotland Yard’s bacon. He just does it with a slight hint of 21st-century snark, that’s all.
The story begins three months after Holmes and Watson’s last case, with Watson preparing to move out of Holmes’ apartment in preparation for his own marriage to the lovely Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). Holmes never knows what to do with himself between jobs anyway, and the imminent breaking up of the old partnership has him especially flustered. He and Watson bicker as if they are the married couple, the good doctor’s patience worn thin by Holmes’ unruly demeanor, his always-rightness, and the dangerous scientific experiments he conducts in his apartment.
Into this chaos comes Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an American who is a master criminal and the only woman Holmes has ever loved. She’s one of the few people able to deceive him, too. “Why are you always so suspicious?” she asks, to which he replies, “Should I answer chronologically or alphabetically?” Oh, what a history they must have together! That would be a fun thing to put in a movie someday!
This time, Irene gets Holmes and a reluctant Watson involved in a rather puzzling mystery. It seems Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), recently hanged for murder, has risen from the grave to commit more murders. Now Holmes’ interest is piqued! Could there be a supernatural explanation this time?
The first half of the film (attributed to four British writers, with “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Invictus” among their prior credits) is buoyant and funny, full of witty Holmes-and-Watson dialogue and numerous amusing instances of Holmes being smarter than everyone else even when he looks like he hasn’t bathed or shaved in a week. (There’s a bit of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, in Downey’s performance.) Downey and Law have a fine rapport, together and in their interactions with the hapless police Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan).
But the film’s second half is much less entertaining, with more fights — fights are not as interesting as snappy dialogue — and a supremely unsatisfying resolution of the central mystery. Two hours’ buildup and THAT’S the answer? Weak, very weak. In general, Ritchie loses points when he focuses on action sequences, which are a dime a dozen these days, rather than on Holmes and Watson, who are unique. Setting the climax high atop an unfinished bridge only serves to make this look like a hundred other action movies. You can put any action hero in a place like that. Why waste it on Sherlock Holmes?
Nonetheless, despite being overlong and losing much of its steam halfway through, the film comes out ahead thanks to Downey and Law, and thanks to Ritchie’s generally light touch. The elements are in place for further adventures of Holmes and Watson, and there’s potential there, if Ritchie and company can come up with a better story. Which really should be elementary.
B- (2 hrs., 8 min.; )