Downey Jr plays that most British of sleuths, Sherlock Holmes, in this new take on an old franchise, with Law as his long-suffering sidekick, Watson. Set in 1890s London and adapted from a graphic novel (which hasn’t been published yet), it concerns Lord Blackwood (Strong), the leader of a sinister secret society who appears to have come back from the dead, and Irene Adler (McAdams), a beautiful woman from Holmes’ past.
In other words, the film revolves around two problematic plot points: we’re not told enough about Adler’s history with Holmes, and Lord Blackwood offers mere paint-by-the-numbers villainy. Sinister secret societies are old hat, after all, and Lord Blackwood’s antics can’t help but lend a slight Da Vinci Code-esque feel to the proceedings, which is hardly a good thing.
Perhaps this is why the funny, catty bromance (if you can bring yourself to call it that) between Downey Jr’s Holmes and Law’s Watson stands out so much as it lends some vague credibility to the proceedings. This Holmes is dishevelled and eccentric, a little forgetful and very clever at solving crimes, but less clever at not getting women to throw wine in his face. Law’s Watson is just jaunty and jovial enough, bouncing off Downey Jr without trying to steal the show. As a pair, they bicker like a married couple, and sometimes it’s hilarious.
Sherlock Holmes is a British institution, of course. Even if you’ve never read a word of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, you’d know that deerstalker pipe and hat, and it’s a fair bet you’d recognise a Holmes silhouette if you saw one. The image of Holmes and sidekick Watson that springs to mind is one of amiable British buffoonery: a pair of affable bachelors taking tea at Baker Street in between solving terribly fiendish mysteries, isn’t it old boy. Jolly good. So, overall, it’s not the sort of thing you’d expect Guy Ritchie to direct, really, is it?
Dig into Conan Doyle’s works, though, and you’ll realise this take on Holmes isn’t actually such a stretch; nor is Sherlock Holmes really so far out of the Guy Ritchie comfort zone. He’d already been in a bare-knuckle boxing ring, for example, long before the fight scenes in this film, although someone other than Guy Ritchie probably wouldn’t have thought to play with slow-motion or put in Fight Club-esque asides to camera. And while Holmes is famed for his cunning deductions, it’s action that really takes centre stage here.
Yet while there are times when you may wonder if this will turn out to be a Jason Statham movie, there’s still more Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade to Downey Jr’s Holmes than in a Statham film – and hey, their plots often made no sense at all. Whatever you think of his slightly-deranged and somewhat dishevelled take on Baker Street’s most famous resident, there’s no denying Robert Downey Jr commands attention here. And that’s the thing about Sherlock Holmes: while it’s patchy in places (especially the bit where the plot’s supposed to be), it’s also highly entertaining.