Until SHERLOCK HOLMES, the phrase "period piece" would not have been attributable to Guy Ritchie. But one of the most surprising and pleasing aspects of the director's new film is that he gets the look and feel of Victorian London down so well that if it weren't for the slow-motion, bare-knuckle fight scenes and recurring, signature "here's what really happened" sequences, you might not have thought it was a Guy Ritchie film at all. The set design, costumes, re-imagined architecture, background images and infrequent, almost flawless CGI effects depict the sprawling city quite well. Ritchie more than adequately pegs the sense of a different, tumultuous age, right down to the tools and jargon used by each character. The depth of these surroundings allows the viewer to more easily swallow Holmes' shenanigans as the film's mystery unfolds.
And what a strange mystery it is! The powerful and grave Lord Blackwood has been caught dealing in the dark arts after a string of murders, and is hanged for his crimes. But soon after, he is resurrected and sets about instigating a Very Sinister Plan. At once eerily distracting and wholly predictable, this supernatural angle almost makes the film seem like more than a basic whodunnit. But it's no coincidence that the story takes place during an era when science and technology are coming into their own.
Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law play Holmes and his unflappable assistant, Dr. Watson. Watson, it seems, has tired of said shenanigans and is parting ways with the renowned sleuth, forging a relationship with his fiancee and a medical practice far away from 221-B Baker Street. But Holmes has had Watson by his side for so long that the detective is having trouble parting ways.
For all his intuitive bravado, Holmes is a bit of a head case. Acutely focused on disseminating the reactions and consequences of every act (his deductive skills are summed up nicely when he rattles off the answers to a string of potential "next cases"), he remains a bit of a slob, socially inept, and a casual gambler and drinker. Drug use is alluded to briefly but quickly dropped; apparently the near-Autistic wiring of Holmes' brain (and thus his behaviors) supplied more than enough fodder for the film. If his intellect weren't so great and his crime-solving abilities not necessary, he wouldn't be a very likable chap.
As entertaining as Downey is (in full, Victorian Tony Stark mode), it's Law who runs away with the film. His Watson is capable in every way, yet must frequently alternate between Holmes' tough-love parental figure and crime-fighting partner. As Lord Blackwood, Mark Strong has little to do but glower and speak in a menacing tone. The actor has quickly become one of my favorites thanks to solid supporting performances in Ritchie's REVOLVER and ROCKNROLLA and the Ridley Scott drama BODY OF LIES. It is one of the few flaws of the film that there isn't more dimension to the villainous character.
On the side, there is a subplot about an international criminal played by Rachel McAdams who has a past connection with Holmes. She is currently employed by a shrouded figure who wants to de-stabilize the sleuth for some nefarious purpose. It is within this subplot that the seeds of franchise are buried.
As strong as its physical settings are, dialogue is critical in a tale of endless minute detail, and the bickering between Holmes and Watson accounts for much of its gleeful success . The banter is swift and crackles, both with wit and melodrama. If the plot winds down in a rather familiar fashion, getting there is a lot of fun.
Good-looking, briskly paced and filled with clever wordplay and physical action, SHERLOCK HOLMES makes for a highly entertaining package that should please a wide variety of moviegoers. Up against the musical NINE and the character dramas CRAZY HEART and A SINGLE MAN, it seems poised to do quite well as the only full-fledged adventure opening Christmas day. And deservedly so. (Review by Steve Norwood - content provider for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas - AFFD)