Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” is “Brokeback Mountain” without the sex and depth of emotion, the story of two cerebral thrill-seekers who would rather be with each other than just about anywhere else.
Neither acknowledges this explicitly, perhaps because doing so would push Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic investigators too far down a road Ritchie was reluctant to travel.
But between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) there exists a bond that supersedes ordinary friendship, an affection conveyed in knowing glances and in the subtext of their droll repartee.
Yet their days together are numbered. Watson is getting married, leaving Holmes to indulge his flights of intellectual curiosity alone, in his cluttered Baker Street flat.
Holmes refuses to accept it. Watson feels most alive when he’s on the case, Holmes argues. Why should a little thing like marriage stand in the way?
Holmes gets his man, and he and Watson take down Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a ritualistic killer with connections inside Scotland Yard. On the eve of his execution, Blackwood reveals his plan to rise from the grave and kill again. Holmes is intrigued but skeptical.
A man of science, Holmes knows Blackwood’s dark magic boils down to so much smoke and mirrors. The challenge before him and Watson is to prove it. Aiding their pursuit (when it suits her) is the mercurial Irene (Rachel McAdams), with whom Holmes shares an undefined past and an uncertain future.
In his career, Ritchie has made no secret of his obsession with the seedy inner-workings of the London underworld. “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) established him as a director with a distinct visual style — quick cuts, sometimes speeded up to the point of incoherence — and subsequent efforts, “Holmes” included, have found him going to the same well time and again.
The mystery of Blackwood’s return is unfortunately lacking in juice. The movie works best as a comedy, something Ritchie seems to grasp in fits and starts, though never enough to commit. The ties that bind Holmes to Watson are frequently played for laughs, perhaps to undercut the homoerotic tension, and they remain the most interesting thing “Holmes” has to offer.
Casting Downey Jr. in the title role was, as Holmes might say, elementary. He seems to enjoy the character, playing him as a cheeky oddball, with an off-center British accent.
If there’s a sequel, and I suspect there will be, I’d like to see him try it again — this time in a better movie.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan
Written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Running time 2 hours