If there exists another film, TV show, or book that makes deductive reasoning and Victorian era procedural investigations as invigorating as the new Sherlock Holmes does, then I am sorely missing out. Don't get me wrong. I've always loved the character in all of his incarnations, but Guy Ritchie's film is positively bursting with an energetic infatuation with the classic logician that is so infectious that by the 10 minute mark only the most prickly purists around will be able to resist its considerable charms.
In retrospect, this should come as no surprise. After a string of indelible, charismatic performances across a wide array of genres, Robert Downey Jr. seemed a perfect match for the curious sleuth. RocknRolla broke director Ritchie's dry spell, announcing a return to form for the man who created Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. The supporting cast filled out nicely, particularly Jude Law fitting the bill as Holmes' partner in anti-crime, Watson, whilst the first trailers looked to promise an enjoyable, unique romp around the back alleys of Victorian London. And yet with as many good omens as Warner Brothers had in their corner, few outsiders could have predicted just how harmonious the entire production would come together. It may be the last major studio film to release in 2009, but in due time Sherlock Holmes will outshine most of the big-budget, CGI-heavy studio tent-pole films of the past summer.
It opens with Holmes and Watson on the precipice of solving a case involving robed figures who chant in the shadows while a young woman lays upon a sacrificial alter and within minutes we know exactly what kind of an adventure we're in for. There's no need to dwell on long-winded character introductions. Watson and Holmes have an instantly recognizable fraternal and professional relationship, there's an obvious villain character by way of the snaggle-toothed Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) who has no qualms with letting Holmes know he has dark plans for the future, and an unexplained but not unclear history between the three. It's an impressive, audience-hooking sequence operating with an Indiana Jones-esque efficiency that's rare in Hollywood these days.
What's more impressive than how quickly Ritchie introduces the major players and plot is how the film opts not to prove Holmes' nearly religious devotion to deductive logic with a series of puzzles, rather with a slow-motion narrative breakdown of the thought process that runs through Holmes' head right before he breaks down the body of an unsuspecting criminal. The audience is treated to an enthusiastic, step-by-step explanation of how Holmes plans to win the fight before seeing Holmes actually win the fight; a technique that may sound mundane in explanation, but is riotously enjoyable on screen. In fact, its such a simple pleasure to watch that one can only imagine the restraint it took on Ritchie's part to not repeatedly default to these logical brawls throughout every bit of action in the film.
And yet these are no mere fight scenes. They function to establish the mindset of both the character and the film. Everything has its place in the order of events, and whether the audience catches it in real-time or a slowed-down explanation, there is a sense of significant purpose attached to everything, a fact that Holmes is clearly instinctively aware of. After seeing the character in a single fight, we're completely on board with him, his infallible expertise, and his best friend, Watson.
In fact, that last element ends up being one of the best things about Sherlock Holmes. Obviously Downey Jr. is great in his role, as he has been in every role the actor has taken on in the last few years, but he wouldn't be nearly as delightful without Jude Law's commanding take on Watson to constantly ground the affable, slightly insane genius. This may be their first cinematic outing together as these characters, but the interplay between the two is so strong that it should embarrass other film franchises that take years to develop character camaraderie as dynamic as what's on display in Holmes.
Complimenting the characters wonderfully is the world of 1891 London that Ritchie and his production team molded around them. I wish I could account for the alchemy involved, but frankly I can't explain the exact science behind how Ritchie managed to capture a Victorian London that doesn't feel like a gray, gloomy, exercise in how crappy life used to be, despite being, well, gray and gloomy. His London is full of interesting side-characters and interesting set pieces that rarely adhere to the typically dour vision of 19th century England so often put to film. It comes across as a highly romanticized vision of an era gone by, but the amount of love that went into crafting it all renders it completely believable.
The only element of the film that feels under-developed is the character of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). The screenplay (written by the trio of Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg) intentionally obfuscates the precise details of why Holmes doesn't trust his ex-lover, who has reappeared in his life right as the mystery surrounding Lord Blackwood gears up, which would be a little less jarring were it not such an obvious setup of questions to be answered in an inevitable sequel(s). Everything else is either self-contained within this singular film or requires no further exploration, which unfortunately causes her loose ends to stick out like threads dangling from the seam of a brand new shirt.
That complaint only comes as an after thought, however. Considering the rest of the film is entertaining enough to overshadow any such concerns while its playing, this is hardly a deal-breaking problem. In fact, Sherlock Holmes is so effortlessly enjoyable that by the hour mark your cheeks will be exhausted from smiling and you'll wonder if Ritchie hasn't used up his bag of tricks too early. You'll be completely won over by his weird blend of the pipe-smoking detective and his ass-kicking best friend that your mind will scarcely have the time to wander off the adventure on hand. By the time the credits roll*, you may even be fatigued from how uniformly satisfying of a film Sherlock Holmes is.
Predictably enjoyable elements like Downey Jr.'s presence all hit their mark, but its the unsuspecting combination of Watson's love for deflating Holmes at every turn and Ritchie's love for extinct London life that really round out the film beyond the spectacle of its grander action scenes. Hardcore purists will surely scoff at some of the altered details, but it remains a spiritually faithful resuscitation of an icon for a new generation. This may not be the Holmes everyone is used to, but that's also why the whole package plays so well.
Edit: Scratch that, as I'm now hearing the post-credits scene is a myth.]