LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - In this corner is Guy Ritchie, master of visual con-game action movies that tend toward all-style-no-substance.
In that corner is Sherlock Holmes, the cerebral master sleuth who solves crimes with quiet deduction, intense concentration and a seven-percent solution.
It’s no contest: The winner is Ritchie in a pyrotechnical knockout.
“Sherlock Holmes” goes wrong in many ways except for one -- commercial appeal. Credit producer Joel Silver for recognizing that the only way to revive Sherlock Holmes for contemporary audiences is by turning him into Jason Bourne and hiring someone like Ritchie to overload the senses with chases, fights, effects, editing, bombastic noise and music. Warner Bros. opens “(Not) Sherlock Holmes” on December 25.
Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law certainly don’t fit previous castings as Holmes and Watson, respectively. That’s fine, but they’re a little too much alike. Both are glib, smart, good-looking guys and fine actors of about the same age and build. If Downey would hand his pipe to Law, they could switch roles from scene to scene.
The two banter a lot with faux hostility, which adds little to what the film takes for wit and subtracts a good deal from whatever suspense the action is meant to generate. If the protagonists crack wise, what danger can they possibly be in?
Each is given a love interest of sorts: Kelly Reilly as Watson’s fiancee, who doesn’t much care for his pal, and Rachel McAdams as “the only woman ever to have bested Holmes.” All of which might have been interesting if the women didn’t disappear for chunks of the movie.
The plot? Wish you hadn’t asked. One is not meant to completely understand it, of course; you never do in a Ritchie movie. McAdams’ Irene Adler drops by Baker Street when Holmes is in one of his stir-crazy fits -- this happens whenever he’s between cases. She pays him to find a missing midget.
Before Holmes can say, “The game’s afoot,” he and a reluctant Watson are ensnared with ritualistic murders, black magic, a diabolical magician (Mark Strong), a resurrection from the grave and an attack on Parliament right out of the Gunpower Plot of 1605. All that’s missing is Guy Fawkes.
As is Ritchie’s signature style, as fast as the movie flies by, it can abruptly freeze and backtrack to show audiences what they missed but Holmes did not: the muddy boot, a key dropped into a shirt, a blank bullet slipped into a gun chamber. Or the film can flash ahead, as in a completely gratuitous bare-knuckle fight Holmes engages in, where he imagines in slow and stop motion the next one-two-three moves that will cripple his opponent.
The sets and CGI backdrops give Ritchie a post-Industrial Revolution London of grimy backstreets, congested thoroughfares and a bustling, bridge-building riverfront that’s an ancestor to the milieu for his modern gangster films. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography smoothy marries the various components, the great matte shots and CGI into a smart-looking film.
Hans Zimmer has composed better film scores but none noisier than this one. It begins with banging drums, then descends into a cacophony of sounds from furious fiddles to Irish airs. This film is never quiet. It also doesn’t operate at less than warp speed for its 128 minutes. So there is no time for Downey and Law to develop anything more than a jaunty repartee. Because this is Holmes and Watson we clearly haven’t met before, one wonders: How did they meet and why is Watson’s medical practice in Holmes’ Baker Street flat? What binds them together other than this being a buddy movie?
Downey plays the detective as if he were -- and their are literary grounds for this -- under the influence of any number of substances. He treats the world as a reality belonging to others but not his, one where he might investigate its phenomenon but never get much involved. Law’s Watson pleads for a normal life that would include a wife and his own domicile but acts more like a confirmed bachelor. Yes, their relationship does have a latent homoerotic undertone.
McAdams and Reilly do well with thinly written roles, delivering enough energy and wit to give their few scenes a spark. Strong makes a menacing presence -- something like a Bond villain, two dimensional yet memorable -- and Eddie Marsan has fun with Holmes’ long-suffering Scotland Yard counterpart, Inspector Lestrade.