Here’s a mystery: Exactly what kind of movie is Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes supposed to be? This two-hour charge into a Victorian underworld of murder, sorcery, and combat CGI purports to be a spin on the adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s pipe-smoking detective. But it’s more like an action-adventure sampler platter. Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes emerges as a raffish superhero with razor-sharp reflexes and the roundhouse skills to match. We’re told he has a “mask of logic,” though he spends most of his time getting in fights and sweating like a happy-hour veteran in a dive bar. With Watson (Jude Law) and a pair of stylish sunglasses, Holmes lurches messily from clue to clue, chasing Lord Blackwood, a villain in a leather trench coat who studies magic and aspires to “remake the world.” Despite its title, Sherlock Holmes is not a tribute to the great cerebral detective. It’s a reminder, if you needed one, that some key part of Hollywood’s imagination never quite got unplugged from The Matrix.
Fans of the original four Holmes novels and 56 stories will no doubt, rightly, be appalled. Aside from names and a few minor details, little binds this movie to the characters and events of Conan Doyle’s fiction. Where the Holmes of print was fastidious to a fault, Downey’s character leaves a trail of physical destruction. Where Conan Doyle’s hero was cold and introverted, Downey’s Sherlock is a histrionic rakehell. The mode of the original character, in fact, was not breakneck adventurism at all: In Conan Doyle’s telling, Holmes was a consummate scientist who did his best work alone in an armchair. “It always annoyed me how in the old-fashioned story, the detective always seemed to get at his results either by some lucky chance, or luck, or else it was quite unexplained how he got there,” Conan Doyle once said. His goal was to create a sleuth whose genius lay not in his street smarts but in his skill working entirely—and transparently—from data.
These qualities, of course, were not invented for the screen. The mountain of Sherlock movies is vast, but it makes for treacherous, often depressing, climbing. Holmes appeared on film for the first time in 1900 in a short movie produced by Thomas Edison. Since then, he has shown up in more than 200 productions. Many are deeply weird. Despite being one of the most precisely fetishized figures in the Western canon—a true Holmes fan knows every small detail of décor in his fictional apartment, every chronological quirk in the fiction—the great detective’s filmography is a long compendium of crimes against the character. Holmes has been dragged onto the screen with strange clothes, odd psychology, and all manner of substance-abuse problems. He’s been placed in the wrong time period, on the wrong continent, and at the wrong stage of life. He’s been made to fight the Nazis. He has swashbuckled. The more of Holmes you see on-screen, the more you realize Ritchie’s effort is merely the latest rite in a decades-old tradition of character-mangling. For every baffling liberty Sherlock Holmes takes, a score of stranger ones have come before.
Click here to read a slide-show essay on strange Sherlock Holmes movies.
Correction, Dec. 27, 2009: The subheadline of the article originally misspelled Guy Ritchie’s last name.