Even the grumpiest English professor would admit that James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel “The Last of the Mohicans” is nearly unreadable. In 1992, director Michael Mann twisted Cooper’s stuffy old prose into an Oscar-winning masterpiece on the big screen. The source material for Guy Ritchie’s (“Snatch”) new film “Sherlock Holmes” is similarly prosaic, but Ritchie’s vision lacks the maturity of Mann’s adaptation. Despite the expected charming turn from star Robert Downey, Jr. (“Tropic Thunder”), “Holmes” can’t rise above the sophomoric formula of fight scenes, farting dogs and an earsplitting score as it drags mindlessly for far too long.
At Quality 16 and Showcase
Films are delicate creatures. The smallest anachronism or incorrect lens filter can ruin the experience. In the case of “Holmes,” whatever joy might be wrought by its action onscreen is threatened by the cacophonous score of the usually reliable Hans Zimmer (“The Dark Knight”). Beneath every frame of every scene blares a grating arrangement of broken pub pianos and misplaced Appalachian fiddles. While Zimmer’s pursuit of a unique sound is admirable, the result is agonizing. In Zimmer’s defense, the moving images beneath his mess of a soundtrack aren’t much more engaging.
Brainless action movies are not without entertainment value. Watching all the different ways a man’s arms and legs can be stylishly broken can be time well spent. But, more often than not, such films don’t purport to achieve anything more than letting the bodies hit the floor in the course of their human meat tenderizing. The gaudy costume and set design and, more importantly, the self-seriousness of everyone but Downey, Jr., desperately suggest that more is at stake here than a simple body count, and the attempt comes across as insincere and banal. Perhaps Ritchie understood that Holmes was still a precious literary commodity to some and tried to maintain pockets of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Victorian vision to appease them. But, try as he might, Ritchie can’t have it both ways.
While most action comedies serve as woeful starring vehicles for bricks of meat like The Rock or Vin Diesel, “Holmes” is graced with the impish magnetism of Robert Downey, Jr. As the film’s titular detective, Downey quips and barbs his way through the film without an ounce of overacting. The role of the devilish savant is clearly a comfort zone for the mercurial Downey, and the film shines brightest when Holmes unleashes his wit, rather than his fists or his electric fighting cane, upon those in his immediate vicinity.
Meanwhile, Jude Law (“Closer”) puts away his patented smug face and performs admirably as Dr. John Watson, Holmes’s best friend and investigative partner. The effectiveness of the Watson character hits its peak whenever Holmes is pestering him, which happens to be most of the film. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a great film with just two strong performances, especially when you have dozens of roles to fill. “Sherlock Holmes” starring sixty copies of Robert Downey, Jr. might have worked, though.
Filling out the cast of important players are Rachel McAdams (“State of Play”) and Mark Strong (“Body of Lies”). As Irene Adler, McAdams is meant to be Holmes’s foil, matching him word for word, gibe for gibe, clue for clue. Instead, she stands around looking pretty, often distressed, occasionally in danger, until Holmes rectifies the situation. If there were an Oscar for Most Useless Performance, McAdams might top the list of contenders. And Mark Strong, who plays the villainous Lord Blackwood, would be hot on her heels. With only two settings — menacing hiss and brawny shout — Strong’s performance reeks of discount Gerard Butler. It’s not Strong’s fault that his character is so hopelessly stupid, but he might have reined in the ham for his own sake.
It’s not unreasonable to expect Ritchie to dilute the verbosity of the Holmes character or attempt to enliven the pace of his adventures with some fisticuffs. The Sherlock Holmes franchise is fairly dusty and warranted a new angle. But Ritchie misfires by placing the perfect Holmes in an otherwise stupid movie. It’s not simply an unfaithful adaptation; it’s an asinine film, and would be no matter whose character it licensed.