Sherlock Holmes

There is something to enjoy about this flagrant makeover of fiction's first modern detective.

Sherlock Holmes - Robert Downey Jr. Dr. John Watson - Jude Law Irene Adler - Rachel McAdams Lord Blackwood - Mark Strong Inspector Lestrade - Eddie Marsan Mary Morstan - Kelly Reilly Sir Thomas Rotheram - James Fox Lord Coward - Hans Matheson Mrs. Hudson - Geraldine James

If you can get over the idea of Sherlock Holmes as an action hero — and if, indeed, you want to — then there is something to enjoy about this flagrant makeover of fiction’s first modern detective into a man of brawn as much as brain. To say that this is not grandpapa’s Sherlock Holmes will be either irrelevant or a plus for most of the intended audience, who know the iconic Victorian/Edwardian-era sleuth by reputation if at all. A good number of Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron Man” fans will likely follow him here, as he turns the venerable deerstalker-capped and becaped figure into a gym-toned, half-deranged Holmes unlike any seen before. Worldwide prospects look potent.

Memorably played 14 times by Basil Rathbone through the ’40s, Holmes has been seen only intermittently onscreen since then, notably in Billy Wilder’s inspired but tragically truncated 1970 “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” as well as in “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” in 1976 and “Young Sherlock Holmes” in 1985; on British television, played by Jeremy Brett; and in an animated series, voiced by Peter O’Toole.

Popular on Variety

Theoretically, Arthur Conan Doyle’s genius of Baker Street is as open to reinvention and reinterpretation as any character, so there is a measure of amusement to be had in observing the contortions producer Joel Silver, director Guy Ritchie and screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham (“Invictus”) and Simon Kinberg (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) have gone through to refit the character to the presumed requirements of the mass international audience.

Their choice was to transform the historically slim, reclusive, intellectual eccentric into an evident manic depressive whose idea of recreation is to slum in what looks like an East End precursor of the fight club. Such Holmes purists as may remain will blanch, but young audiences, particularly males, will likely swill the topped-out serving of sweaty masculinity, flexing muscle, imaginative violence, unusual weaponry, impudent banter and ballsy effrontery.

Although Downey’s recent ascent to action-blockbuster topliner defines the nature of this new Holmes, the thesp’s essential identity as a resourceful and vigorous character actor asserts itself up to a point. Distractingly, for the time period, he sports a wild-haired, stubbled look that makes him resemble Al Pacino’s kid brother, and there are times when his well-accented Britspeak reaches such basso depths that his dialogue can’t be fully understood. But his keen eyes, quick tongue and edgy combustibility do lend credence to a man who’s able to see, anticipate and comprehend things others can’t — which, in this case, includes a slow-motion compendium of the bodily harm that awaits his opponent at fisticuffs.

Once past the nonsensically overloaded martial-artsy opening stretch, a worthy opponent to Holmes announces himself in the person of Lord Blackwood (the ever-impressive Mark Strong). Condemned to die for the murder of several women, this self-possessed practitioner of black magic ominously warns that, “Death is only the beginning,” as he is led to the hangman’s noose, after which he is duly pronounced dead by none other than Holmes’ sometimes partner and chronicler, Dr. Watson, now transformed into a dashing pretty boy by Jude Law.

Unfortunately for Holmes, Watson and the other citizens of London, Blackwood shortly resurrects himself and undertakes to establish his New Order, with part of the plan being Britain’s reconquest of that former colony across the Atlantic. Blackwood’s organization, a Masonic-like cult with members in high places, also prefigures fascist iconography in terms of greatcoat design, hair stylings and expressive scowling, so at least sartorially, its members have a distinct edge on the disheveled Holmes.

In addition to taking on men twice his weight in hand-to-hand combat, Holmes diverts himself by undermining Watson’s relationship with his fiancee (Kelly Reilly) and coping with the return of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a master criminal who has twice bested Holmes in the past and whose personal intentions with him are far from honorable. Curiously, the one area of traditional Holmesiana the script doesn’t really transgress is his lack of romantic attachment. Some backstory and offscreen shenanigans with Irene are suggested, but there remains a reticence to doing anything dramatically interesting with this woman, who is not very well integrated into the rest of the story, a shortcoming the normally resourceful McAdams is unable to do much about.

Action scenes are devised to accentuate aspects of turn-of-the-century industrial London, ruffians of notably indestructible stature (particularly a scar-faced giant who just keeps on coming) and deaths of a diabolically creative nature that only the scientifically adept Blackwood could concoct and the encyclopedically knowledgeable Holmes could analyze. After a well-prepared dramatic climax in Parliament, a putative action exclamation point feels hokey and too CGI-dominated.

Olde London town probably hasn’t looked this filthy onscreen since David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” and every frame has been crammed with visual stimulation thanks to Sarah Greenwood’s detailed production design, Philippe Rousselot’s gritty lensing and Jenny Beavan’s determinedly creative costume design. Ritchie has never worked on a scale anything approaching this before and, while some of the directorial affectations are distracting, he keeps the action humming.

Still, the single most important craft contribution is Hans Zimmer’s score. Overbearing in the opening scene and opportunistic in its lift of a key melodic phrase from Ennio Morricone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” soundtrack, it soon settles in to provide not only narrative propulsion, but enormously helpful mood colorings. The orchestrations are particularly fresh, with bracing use of the zither and other unusual instruments introducing surprising textures throughout.

Sherlock Holmes

Production: A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures of a Silver Pictures and Wigram production. Produced by Joel Silver, Lionel Wigram, Susan Downey, Dan Lin. Executive producers, Michael Tadross, Bruce Berman. Co-producer, Steve Clark-Hall. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Screenplay, Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg; screen story, Lionel Wigram, Johnson; Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson created by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Crew: Camera (Technicolor), Philippe Rousselot; editor, James Herbert; music, Hans Zimmer; production designer, Sarah Greenwood; supervising art director, Niall Moroney; art directors, James Foster, Nick Gottschalk, Matt Gray; set decorator, Katie Spencer; costume designer, Jenny Beavan; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Chris Munro; supervising sound editor, James Mather; sound designer, Michael Fentum; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill; visual effects supervisor, Chas Jarrett; visual effects, Double Negative, Framestore, Prologue Films; special effects supervisor, Mark Holt; stunt coordinators, Franklin Henson, Frank Ferrara; fight coordinator, Richard R. Ryan; associate producers, Lauren Meek, Peter Eskelsen; assistant director, Max Keene; second unit director, Paul Jennings; second unit camera, Alan Stewart; casting, Reg Poerscout-Edgerton. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Dec. 3, 2009. MPAA Rating: MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 128 MIN.

With: Sherlock Holmes - Robert Downey Jr. Dr. John Watson - Jude Law Irene Adler - Rachel McAdams Lord Blackwood - Mark Strong Inspector Lestrade - Eddie Marsan Mary Morstan - Kelly Reilly Sir Thomas Rotheram - James Fox Lord Coward - Hans Matheson Mrs. Hudson - Geraldine James

More Film

  • Timmy Failure-Mistakes Were Made Disney Plus

    'Spotlight' Director Tom McCarthy on Switching Gears With Disney Plus Kids Movie

    Most directors wouldn’t follow up a best picture Oscar victory with a children’s movie produced by and distributed on a new streaming service. But that’s exactly what Tom McCarthy did after “Spotlight,” his powerful 2015 drama about sex abuse in the Catholic Church, became an awards season darling. His latest feature, “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were [...]

  • Miss Americana Taylor Swift

    The 5 Most Revelatory Moments From Taylor Swift Documentary 'Miss Americana'

    On Thursday night in Park City, Utah, the 2020 Sundance Film Festival opened with the premiere of the highly anticipated Taylor Swift documentary, “Miss Americana.” During a Q&A after the film ended — and received a standing ovation from the audience at the Eccles Theater — Swift said she had enlisted director Lana Wilson for [...]

  • Missing Link I Lost My Body

    Annie Awards Expand Reach in Evolving Animation World

    The Annies, started by animation organization ASIFA-Hollywood nearly 50 years ago as a dinner to honor toon veterans Max and Dave Fleischer, has today morphed into a major awards season event, honoring achievements in 32 categories as well as a number of juried kudos. “We keep growing every year,” says Frank Gladstone, executive director of [...]

  • Emma Tillinger Koskoff The Irishman Producer

    Producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff Opens Up About 'The Irishman'

    The numbers for “The Irishman” are staggering: 108 shooting days, 117 locations, 319 scenes, 160 actors, in a story spanning 50 years. “I must say, it was no small feat,” laughs Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who is Oscar-nominated for the film, as well as for “Joker.” “Irishman” is the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) [...]

  • Donald Trump Hollywood Racism

    Inside a Sundance Documentary About the ACLU's Fight Against Donald Trump

    Elyse Steinberg, one of the co-directors of the new documentary “The Fight,” was inspired to learn more about the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shortly after Donald Trump moved into in the White House. “Seven days into Trump’s presidency,” she recalls, after the travel ban in Muslim-majority countries was issued in January 2017, “I joined [...]


    Box Office: 'The Gentlemen' Opens With $725,000 on Thursday Night

    STX’s Matthew McConaughey crime comedy “The Gentlemen” has opened with a moderate $725,000 at 1,885 North American locations on Thursday night. Horror thriller “The Turning” launched with $425,000 at 2,200 sites on Thursday night. The movie, based on Henry James’ 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” stars Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince. [...]

  • Aubrey Plaza

    Aubrey Plaza on 'Intense Experience' of Sundance Drama 'Black Bear,' Her 'Judy' Obsession

    Aubrey Plaza gives a go-for-broke performance in “Black Bear,” a galvanizing and serpentine drama about a weekend getaway that goes dangerously off the rails. The film premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday and Plaza’s work is a million miles removed from April Ludgate, the deadpan and apathetic intern from “Parks and Recreation” that [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content