Packed with Victorian gadgets, awesome fights, Illuminati-style conspiracies, and lots of incredibly sexy tweed outfits, the new Sherlock Holmes flick is James Bond for the steampunk set. But will you like it if you aren't a tweed fetishist?
In a season full of swollen special effects blockbusters and annoying Christmas stories, badboy Brit director Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is a welcome respite. It's a simple whodunnit with Victorian flourishes and a lot of incredibly hammy acting from star Robert Downey, Jr., playing Holmes as a badass Hunter Thompson type. When he's not solving crimes or using his powers of observation to kick bad guys in the nuts, Downey's Holmes mopes in his rooms, taking drugs and testing new kinds of explosives. Jude Law plays Watson with tweedy aplomb. Downey and Law have such incredible chemistry together that every scene featuring the two of them crackles with homoerotic zing and makes you fall completely in love with these two masters of logic who can also fight like Irish wrestlers (did I mention the great Irish wrestling scene? oh yeah).
The movie isn't based on any particular novel in Arthur Conan Doyle's celebrated series about the detective whose superpower was minute observation and deductive logic. It bears some resemblance to Hound of the Baskervilles, in that there's a rash of seemingly supernatural events that Holmes works to reveal as perfectly-explainable elements of a conspiracy. In the case of this film, the "supernatural" occurrence is that a hanged murderer has turned up alive and is attempting a hostile takeover of an ancient Illuminati-style group of aristocrats who believe in black magic.
Holmes gets involved in the case when he's hired by old flame Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, looking spicy in her tweed ladysuits). Adler, an extremely minor character in the novels, emerges in this film as a wily and formidable third member of the Holmes-Watson team. The only thief who ever outwitted Holmes, she's working for a mysterious man who wants Holmes to investigate the murder of a chemist whose life turns out to be intertwined with the mysteriously resurrected murderer.
It's a perfectly serviceable plot, which reaches a very steampunk scifi conclusion. But this film will not win you over with storytelling - it will seduce you entirely with individual scenes and scenery. As I said earlier, every moment with Holmes and Watson crackles with manic energy, whether Watson is trying to convince a very stoned Holmes to stop experimenting on flies in his rooms, or Watson watches in horror as Holmes alienates the doctor's fiancee by observing that the pale stripe on her ring finger suggests she discarded her previous beau for "someone better."
Sherlock Holmes is, more than anything else, a feast for the eyes. The sets are sumptuous, the costumes will feed your erotic tweed fantasies, and the CGI backgrounds recreate a rich, believable Victorian London of hulking industrial projects and factories. Director Ritchie deliberately stages this world to feel like steampunk: This isn't the quaint, twee land of Victoriana; it's a modernizing urban world of science and steamships and laboratories. Even when Holmes is fighting, we watch through the lens of rationality. In a couple of truly great fight scenes, we hear Holmes planning the trajectory of his punches in voiceover before he executes them perfectly. Though it's a little hard to swallow this asskicking version of Holmes, it's still amusing to imagine that his great mind allows him to plot out the perfect way to knock out a thug.
Unfortunately, if you aren't a sucker for hard Victorian concept design, Sherlock Holmes is going to feel like a lot of style and not much substance. There are long, meandering chase sequences that lose their steam after a while, and the central premise of the conspiracy plot makes almost no sense. There are moments when the action becomes downright boring just as it should be picking up, like when Holmes and Watson are fleeing the bad guys on a half-built steamship - or when the resurrected murderer is executing his nefarious plan.
These flaws are particularly grating when you add in Downey's over-the-top acting and an accent that caroms all over the place. There's an obvious setup for a sequel here, and one hopes that somebody can tamp down Downey's prancing a bit before Sherlock Holmes 2: Steamy Boogaloo gets underway.
But if what you want is some goofy diversion and epic steampunkery, then Sherlock Holmes is going to satisfy you like nothing else. When it works, this flick is like a brilliant and well-oiled machine - and those moments are almost enough to make you forgive its failings.