What do you do when the lead actor gives a good performance, but he’s still just all wrong for the movie? Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes is lively, colorful and fun to watch, but ultimately failed to make me think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In the end, Guy Ritchies’ take on the Holmes mythos is a handsomely executed, entertaining action movie with a Victorian setting, but every time “Holmes” stepped on screen, I kept expecting him to strap on an iron suit and start fighting terrorists.
This story actually begins with the bad guy, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), being caught and arrested in the act of ritualistic murder, then tried and hanged. You might think that would leave us with two hours to fill and not much to do. Holmes feels the same way, bored to distraction without an adversary and driving his friend Watson (Jude Law) to the point of homicide, until he’s approached by a former adversary, reformed thief Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), to help her locate a missing friend. Pursuing this case, however, uncovers evidence that Lord Blackwood may not even be mostly dead, which could be embarrassing to Watson, who pronounced him dead at the hanging, and lethal to much of the rest of England. It will also put Holmes on the wrong side of the law, which suits Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) just fine.
In most ways, there’s is a lot right about this production. They’ve done an admirable job of immersing us in Victorian atmosphere and detail, returning again and again to the original Conan Doyle books rather than relying too much on the iconography of previous Holmes movies. Watson is no doddering fool but an accomplished equal for Holmes and, despite being the great detective’s verbal punching bag, Inspector Lestrade and the police are not completely helpless without Holmes’ input.
And it’s not as if Downey gives a poor performance that leaves a vacuum in the center of this film. He’s not coasting or just cashing a paycheck, but he’s not really stretching, throwing himself 110% into it like he did for Tropic Thunder. Instead we get Tony Stark with the accent from Chaplin. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of Holmes as action hero. It’s certainly not a totally alien concept to the fictional character of the Conan Doyle stories. What was needed here was a better effort from the film’s star to be more Sherlock Holmes and less Robert Downey, Jr.