Before 2009 when Sherlock Holmes was released, the only tale of the famous detective of deerstalker hat note that I had any familiarity with was The Hound of the Baskervilles. You know, the weird one about the dogs on the moors of Northern England? It is kind of interesting when you think about the continued popularity of the titular character since he first appeared in the late nineteenth century. I guess people just love detective stories? But there have been other novels of this genre published since then. And yet in the past ten years there have been at least four different versions of the legendary character that I can think of at the moment. As this is a movie review blog (two of these are television shows), and I have not seen Holmes and Watson (2018, and thankfully judging by its reception), I will be discussing the first of the iterations starring Robert Downey Jr. as the noteworthy mystery solver.
We join Holmes and his trusty companion Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) in Sherlock Holmes hot on the tail of the devious Lord Henry Blackwood (Mark Strong). This seeming scion of London society was taking part in a deadly ritual that was about to result in the death of a young woman had it not been for the intervention of our heroes. Despite Blackwood being taken into custody and by all appearances hung until dead for his crimes, his plans continue unabated. What puts Holmes back on the case is Blackwood rising from the grave, and our detective is asked to figure out what is going on. At the same time, there is another shadowy figure, Professor Moriarty (who is literally in shadows and never actually revealed), who is monitoring Blackwood’s actions through Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). Adler and Holmes have a colorful history, and Moriarty uses Adler to encourage Holmes to uncover Blackwood’s secrets. In the process, Holmes discovers a secret plot on the part of the “order” that Blackwood leads to kill members of Parliament not allied with his cause. This involves a machine that is set to deliver cyanide gas into the government chamber. Holmes and Watson, along with Adler, find a way to disarm the device, though Adler attempts to abscond with one of the main components. Blackwood catches up to her on top of the then under construction Tower Bridge. So does Holmes, and in the resulting fight between the two men Blackwood ends up truly hung from a chain dangling from the scaffolding. With the danger past, Adler reveals Moriarty’s existence to Holmes.
I enjoy Sherlock Holmes, but I do have one small criticism. Perhaps this is influenced by my love of the more recent BBC version with Benedict Cumberbatch as the beloved detective. In that particular series, London and its environs are a significant part of the proceedings. There is an attention to detail when Holmes and Watson (Martin Freeman) are patrolling its streets as to where they are going and the distances between landmarks. In Sherlock Holmes, little care is given to geography. Perhaps this is because the former was originally made for a British audience, whereas most Americans could give two lumps of sugar in their tea for how far Parliament is from Tower Bridge. I mention this last bit specifically because the climactic moment takes Holmes, Adler, and Blackwood from the sewers beneath Parliament to the top of Tower Bridge in a few steps. Maybe I am the only one who notices stuff like this (though I doubt it), but in reality this is physically impossible.
I am thankful to see that Sherlock Holmes features the take down of the Masonic like cult that comprises Blackwood and his followers. The Catholic Church (despite potential conspiracy theories) considers freemasonry a sin. Whether or not you believe they are the hand behind all moments throughout history, that is another story. Whatever the case, the movie suggests that there is a grand design on Blackwood’s part to use the British Empire as a platform to take over the world with what he refers to his “dark powers.” Of course, Holmes is able to prove that Blackwood’s supposed magic is simply his use of science and other tricks to deceive people into thinking he could kill others without touching them. While one might say, “hooray for logic and reason,” it should also be noted that in order to come to these conclusions, Holmes must “widen his gaze,” as Blackwood put it. While the resulting ritual Holmes’ recreated led to his revelation of Blackwood’s ultimate scheme, it still allows for the existence of the Divine, particularly if evil is a thing.
Like I hinted at in a previous paragraph, the BBC adaptation is better than Sherlock Holmes. It is not a bad movie, but it is heavily Americanized. That is not to say that it lacks cleverness. Holmes’ mental powers are on full display here. Yet they wanted to make Holmes into a bit of an action hero, it would seem, taking advantage of Robert Downey Jr.’s martial arts abilities. Still, it is fun to listen to him first analyze his opponent and dispassionately decide how to incapacitate him. And while his trademark lack of people skills are also on display in his interactions with Watson’s fiancé Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), he is still a good guy and he wins in the end.