"The game's afoot!"
Dedicated Sherlock Holmes movie fans may find it takes some readjustment to get used to this 2009 version of the fictional consulting detective. This is not the Sherlock Holmes we've gotten to know from countless past movies nor quite the character Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described in his short stories and novels. This newly interpreted Sherlock Holmes is as much an invention of director Guy Ritchie and the film's star, Robert Downey, Jr., as it is a creation of the original author.
Nonetheless, that doesn't mean the new film or its characters don't work. Just think of them as a little different from how we've pictured them before. Not that Ritchie and Downey take all that many liberties, however. There is really nothing in the film beyond the new plot line that Doyle himself didn't at least mention in his stories. For instance, this new Holmes behaves more in the manner of a modern action hero than the purely methodical, deductive private investigator we've come to know.
Is the new characterization too far afield? Not really, since, for example, Doyle himself alludes to Holmes being an expert fencer and a skillful boxer. Furthermore, this new Holmes is anything but the meticulously neat, compulsively tidy Holmes we usually see, but, again, Doyle actually describes his character as being rather careless about his housekeeping chores, often using his lodgings at 221B Baker Street as a personal laboratory and workshop. In addition, Doyle tells us that Holmes frequently used drugs in his early career (a 7% solution of cocaine) and that while Holmes never married, he did admire and perhaps even fall in love with a worthy adversary, the beautiful Irene Adler (played here by Rachel McAdams, the only weak link in the cast, as she doesn't seem quite up to being as cunning and brilliant as the role demands).
What Ritchie and Downey do is embroider and magnify the traits Conan Doyle had already given his main character. It's just that in most of Doyle's stories, Holmes never has to resort to much physical activity. In the new movie, the filmmakers exploit Holmes's natural athletic abilities as well as his acquired talents to produce an amusing, action-packed thriller. If this Holmes smacks more of Tony Stark than of Conan Doyle, it's no accident.
As for Holmes's best friend, confident, and biographer, Dr. John Watson, we have the unfortunate (though highly entertaining) 1930's-40's characterization of actor Nigel Bruce to blame for thinking of him as a bumbling old fool. The fact is, in the Doyle stories, Holmes and Watson are approximately the same age, their late twenties, when they first meet and take up rooms together, and Doyle describes the doctor as anything but the blundering, blathering blockhead Bruce made him out to be. Indeed, Doyle tells us that before their meeting, Watson was a military surgeon in the Second Afghan War, where he was severely wounded. The author goes on to explain that Watson was a strongly built fellow and apparently quite the ladies' man, mentioning Watson getting married at least twice, perhaps three times during the long course of the stories. Jude Law plays Watson in the new movie, and he is more in keeping with Doyle's vision of the man: strong, intelligent, cultured, dapper, and dependable.
And what of the famous deerstalker cap, Inverness cape, and curved Meerschaum pipe we have so long associated with the detective? You won't find them in this movie, as they were the products of other people--the artist Sydney Paget and the stage actor William Gillette--who added their own touches to the legend.
What we get in Ritchie and Downey's reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes saga is a vigorous, resourceful, almost devil-may-care detective, still brilliant, witty, and arrogant but more prone to take chances than we've seen from the likes of previous actors in the part. Downey will not remind you of Clive Brook, Arthur Wontner, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Roger Moore, Nicol Williamson, Christopher Plummer, Ian Richardson, Jeremy Brett, nor any of the countless other folks who have undertaken the role. Downey is unmistakably his own man, making this Sherlock Holmes a logical-minded tough guy, as memorable and as commendable as he is different.
As for director Guy Ritchie, you probably remember him from bloody, goofy, hyperkinetic British crime capers like "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Snatch," "Revolver," and "RocknRolla." Similar to those movies, "Sherlock Holmes" boasts an almost indecipherable plot. Suffice it to say that Holmes brings his considerable intellect to bear on a case involving an occult evil of monumental proportions. But don't even try to figure it out; just enjoy the black-hearted villains (Mark Strong, Robert Maillet), the lovely ladies (Ms. McAdams, Kelly Reilly), and all the cliff-hangers and derring-do.
No, don't fret about the plot. Instead, enjoy the characters, the acting, the action, the music, and the look of the film. For instance, Ritchie creates a wonderfully grimy atmosphere in the movie, a London of the late nineteenth century that is anything but picturesque. That colorful London fog we've all seen in countless other movies was in reality more of a London smoke and soot, and we see it everywhere in the city, even coating the front of Holmes's rooms on Baker Street. Ritchie and the filmmakers planned their recreation of London thoroughfares, street life, and clothing with deliberate care for period accuracy. This Holmes may not sport a deerstalker cap, but the outfits he does wear are authentic to the time. And Hans Zimmer's delightful musical score, nominated for an Oscar, probably should have won the award. It's one of the few soundtracks I wouldn't mind listening to again on CD.
If the movie has a weakness, though, it's Ritchie's propensity for long, nonstop action sequences, even when they're not entirely needed. Sure, it's an action movie above all, but unlike other Sherlock Holmes movies where our following the detective's deductions is the main attraction, in this movie it's the character's constant physical activity that draws our attention, with hardly a quiet moment in the whole affair. (I did like a relatively restrained restaurant scene with Holmes, Watson, and Watson's fiancée, Mary Morston. It plays effortlessly, draws upon an intelligent sense of humor, and offers a pleasing coda.) I just wished that things would have slowed down for more than a few minutes at a time. It also means, however, that there's never a dull moment. While leaving one rather breathless at times is hardly the kind of thing one thinks of in a Sherlock Holmes film, here we take it for granted.
Indeed, the style, the action, and the main characters in this Sherlock Holmes adventure are so different from the movies that have come before it, this entry does not fit neatly into the customary Holmes canon. Get used to it, because with the film's having taken in well over $200,000,000 at the box office, I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock any more than we've seen the last of him as Iron Man. Especially when we see shadow of Holmes's arch nemesis, Professor Moriarity, lurking in the background.
First, understand that director Guy Ritchie intended for "Sherlock Holmes" to reflect a dark, gritty, grimy vision of nineteenth-century London, complete with a subdued color palette that runs high to grays, browns, blues, and blacks. That said, WB's widescreen transfer of the movie's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio comes off terrifically well, the video engineers using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec to accomplish the deed.
Clarity is largely excellent except when Ritchie is playing around with different cameras and lenses. Black levels are deep. Detailing is fine, especially in most close-ups. Despite its sometimes pale appearance, the image looks about the way I remember it from a movie theater, with no digital artifacts, haloing, or filtering to interfere with the situation. In other words, I enjoyed the video quality immensely.
When I watched the standard-definition version of the movie, with its regular, lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, I found the audio very dynamic, to be sure, yet it often translated into simply being very loud. On Blu-ray disc, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is even more dynamic, yet it doesn't seem as noisy loud to me, possibly because the sound is smoother.
The noise of a carriage in the opening scene establishes the sonic tone for the picture as the vehicle, horses, and wheels clatter realistically from behind left, overhead, and into the front speakers. This is primarily an action movie, and the audio will not let you forget it for a minute. Not only does the soundtrack capture the impact of carriages, clubs, fists, bullets, and explosions, it provides a sturdy surround mix, too, notable in most of the fights and chases, in the crowd scenes at a boxing match, even in the subtle noises at a restaurant. The rear and side channels help to recreate the hustle and bustle of London streets as well as convey the musical bloom of Hans Zimmer's musical track. In all, this is one of the better soundtracks I've heard in any high-def format.
The primary bonus is a Blu-ray exclusive, a "Maximum Movie Mode. This is a combination of picture-in-picture, director walk-through, timeline, storyboard comparison, etc. It's an extension of what WB used to call their "In-Movie Experience." After that are eight "Focus Points" (totaling over thirty-one minutes) that repeat the featurettes found in the "Maximum Movie Mode." The other bonus item is a fourteen-minute segment, "Sherlock Holmes Reinvented," a typical behind-the-scenes affair with the stars, director, and filmmakers, most of which is covered in the "Maximum Movie Mode" and "Focus Points."
Additionally, there are thirty scene selections; a series of promos and trailers at start-up only; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Then, because this is a Combo Pack, you also get a standard-definition DVD and a standard-definition digital copy for iTunes and Windows Media (the offer expiring on March 28, 2011). Finally, a light cardboard slipcover encloses the two-disc Blu-ray case.
Although "Sherlock Holmes" may not be the Sherlock Holmes film people were expecting, it's lively and exciting enough to hold the attention of most action-movie fans. Robert Downey, Jr. creates a brand-new interpretation of Holmes, and Jude Law makes a splendid, conservative contrast to his more-mercurial friend. What's more, the whole show is visually stunning, so even if the action doesn't excite you, Guy Ritchie's reconstruction of nineteenth-century London might interest you. Look, listen, and enjoy without thinking about it too much.
Incidentally, I was a little surprised that the Wife-O-Meter liked the movie as much as I did, maybe more. She said she'd give it a 7 or 8/10, liking the movie's light, romantic adventure, its excitement and intrigue, and its endless good humor. Fair enough.