RECAP: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes (2009): Guy Ritchie

Have you heard of a literary detective from Britain named Sherlock Holmes? He’s quite famous across The Pond.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Sherlock Holmes matches wits with a supposed wizard who returned from the dead to rule Britain and the world. 

Hero (5/10)

You’ve seen Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) a hundred times and read him a thousand. Guy Ritchie’s Holmes might be the most action-packed sleuth franchise yet made.

Most everyone knows Sherlock Holmes as the world’s best and most famous consulting detective. He lives at 221B Baker Street, London, around the turn of the 20th century. These facts are unchanged in Ritchie’s movie. The movie’s style and the character’s nuances change. So what’s Downey’s Holmes like?

Holmes the fighter: The film opens with a daring raid on a black magic vigil beneath a London church. As Watson (Jude Law), Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), and others ride in a cab to disrupt the vigil, Sherlock runs ahead, arriving first. Before he’s spoken a word onscreen, he narrates the moves he will use to attack the first bad guy he sees.

Holmes uses his supernatural observational skills to deduce the best method for downing this opponent. We watch in slow motion the sequence of blows as Holmes’s visualization. When the moment comes to attack, the fight plays out exactly as Holmes planned.

Later, Holmes participates in an underground fighting club, where he grapples with a much larger man. Holmes prefers a slap-and-dash method to fighting, later known as bitch slapping. That’s right, this Holmes is a bitch-slapper.

But he’s the best bitch-slapper, or any type of slapper, in the game. Holmes again pre-visualizes his finishing sequence on a more seasoned and not surprised fighter. Again the fight plays out exactly as he planned.

Holmes the lover: Sherlock is instantly and permanently distracted by Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a woman Watson describes as the only person to have outsmarted Holmes. And she did so twice.

The mere sight of Adler’s handkerchief during underground fight club distracts Sherlock enough to nearly cost him the match. She visits his flat and unsettles him. Adler drugs Holmes in her hotel suite and ties him, naked, to the bed.

Later, when she’s almost dead from a fall, Holmes can’t fight the villain without keeping an eye on her body. It’s clear to everyone that he’s smitten, though Holmes is the lone person who won’t admit it.

Holmes the friend: Sherlock is having a bit of a row with his long-time collaborator Dr. John Watson. Watson plans to move out of 221B and cohabit with his future fiancé Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). Holmes refuses to believe it, and he constantly speaks as if “we” are investigating cases. Watson corrects him to “you.”

Gladstone the Dog

Holmes meets Mary for the first time at dinner, when he deduces her life story, performing so well that he Mary gifts him her glass of wine. Sure, she tosses the wine into his face for speaking about her previous engagement, but that’s still a gift.

Holmes the investigator: Holmes’s failed interpersonal skills are ignored because his powers of observation are, famously, unsurpassed. At the vigil opening the movie, Holmes saves Watson from being stabbed in the eye by a nearly invisible shard of glass protruding about two feet from the villain’s wrist.

Holmes’s powers allow him, and no one else, to see through the schemes of Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a man arrested and executed early on for five homicides. That Blackwood appears to rise from the dead does not trouble Holmes.

He shows off his talent when Watson reads him letters from people hoping for resolution to their problems. Sherlock solves them after hearing one sentence. Holmes takes the Blackwood case because it presents a challenge.

They meet the day of Blackwood’s execution. Holmes commends Blackwood for how well he concealed his five murders, but the attempt at a sixth, which Holmes foiled, resembled “a finger painting.”

Blackwood “rises from the dead” and forces Holmes to try to catch him. Holmes and Watson most of the movie following clues. They visit the flat/lab of the man who was actually buried in Blackwood’s coffin. There, Holmes uncovers nearly all the evidence he needs to crack the case.

Part of the Holmes appeal on screen concerns how filmmakers treat the details. Holmes, speaking to Mary, claims that the smallest details reveal the largest truths. The movie, in classic Ritchie style, is careful to point out those details. Many closeups feature the details Holmes notices; it’s the audience’s job to deduce their meaning.

When Holmes visits the first lab, we see the rhododendron leaf, a vat of frogs, a dissected frog, a pan of some burned chemical, and more. Holmes, with his wide knowledge of chemicals, flora, and fauna, can piece together the clues. Most of us cannot. Holmes is a guy who, in the literature, knows hundreds of types of tobacco ash. Noticing the clues is only half the battle.

Robert Downey Jr. is a game choice for Sherlock Holmes. He has the rapid-fire wit to match Guy Ritchie’s frenetic pace, and the two blend well. His rapport with Jude Law is terrific, always an important factor in making successful Holmes adaptations. It’s the accent that sags.

Downey doesn’t do a good English accent. His go of one in Natural Born Killers is stranger, but as Sherlock Holmes he fails to divest his American-ness from his cadence. His struggles are stranger considering he spoke well as an Australian in the previous year’s comic masterpiece Tropic Thunder.

Villain (5/10)

Lord Blackwood was once a member of Parliament. I guess he lost the title when he dipped into black magic. However, once a lord, always a lord.

Blackwood is arrested in the opening sequence when his plan to mesmerize a woman into killing herself is foiled by Holmes. Blackwood gives himself up to the police so willingly you’d think he wanted to be arrested. Well, that’s exactly it.

Blackwood is executed early, and he rises from the dead a few days later. England is in a tizzy, though his supporters are eager. We learn later of Blackwood’s provenance. He was conceived during a ritual of the Temple of the Four Orders, a secret, magic-practicing order with members in high places, and is the son of a prominent justice.

Blackwood “dies” by hanging. He rises from his tomb a few days later. He visits the Order and takes control. He leads Holmes across the city, toying and distracting the famous detective. Finally, Blackwood emerges publicly in Parliament.

Blackwood doing a murder/robbery.

Blackwood seeks a new order, using fear to lead Britain back to the top of the world. He believes Britain will regain that colony across the Atlantic it lost a century ago. You might have heard of it. It’s the United States.

His magic powers are prodigious, but, as Holmes suspected, they are all subterfuge. Science is the real culprit. We’ll see how later.

You have to love Mark Strong in this role. With his cropped hair slicked back, he’s going full Dracula. He wears a black leather coat with high collars. Even his tooth is strangely protruding, not unlike a vampire’s fangs, but not like them either.

Action/Effects (5/10)

The best effects sequence occurs when Watson trips a wire that explodes a hog rendering plant. Watson feels the wire and knows he’s about to do damage. He shouts at Holmes and Adler, following behind him, but it’s far too late. The movie goes slow motion as the factory explodes.

Get ready for more slow motion. Watson is blown aside from an explosion behind him. Individual barrels explode, and sparked wood strikes Holmes. Two explosions knock Holmes and Adler from their positions.

Danger boys

Mourning string music drowns the sounds. Holmes has the presence of mind to grab the nearest protective item, a wood pallet, to shield him from incoming projectiles. Smart move, because another blast envelops Holmes in black smoke.

He’s running toward Adler as another blast ejects wood onto him. Holmes throws the pallet away and slides beside Adler. He picks her up and they run toward Watson when a final blast ahead blows both off their feet.

The scene looks fantastic. In slow motion you can see how the sausage gets made.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Any Sherlock Holmes story worth its salt has John Watson. Jude Law brings toughness and wit to Watson, all the better to counter Holmes with.

Watson plans to leave 221B to move in with Mary, his fiancé he hasn’t proposed to yet. He’s looking for the right ring. Watson’s written plenty about Holmes, but so far published none of it. The Blackwood affair that results in the latter’s hanging was, in Watson’s mind, their last case together.

Holmes knows better. His friend is a gambler, so Holmes holds onto his money for him. Holmes also knows Watson can’t help but participate in detective adventures; he often leaves bread crumbs for Watson to pick up and fall back into the case.

Pay attention to Irene Adler.

Watson proves himself as capable a fighter as Holmes. In fact, he does most of the fighting. While Holmes grapples with an enormous Frenchman, Watson battles two henchman. Later, as Holmes and Adler attempt to disarm a gas bomb beneath Parliament, Watson fight three guys at once. Pretty good for a guy with a limp.

Much of the allure of Holmes mysteries lies in the manly friendship of the two heroes. Watson and Holmes share a dog, Gladstone, which suffers from Holmes’s scientific investigations. Holmes, at least, calls him “our dog.” The two live together, and they bicker like a married couple. At one point they argue over a waistcoat, which Watson demands, only to throw it out of the cab window. As a lark, Holmes hires a gypsy fortune teller to read a horrible future for Watson. They are a great pair with terrific chemistry in Sherlock Holmes.

Everyone’s favorite kept man.

Irene Adler loves Holmes as much as Watson, perhaps more so, but she has a strange way of showing it. Hired by a shadowy villain, Adler was meant to manipulate Holmes’s feelings for her, but she falls for him instead. These might be the only minds to match each other, also including a professor of mathematics we’ll meet later.

Adler comes to Holmes to ask him to help her find a short redhead. This man was working on something for Blackwood, and the shadowy figure wants it. Turns out the man replaced Blackwood in the latter’s coffin.

Holmes is not keen to help Adler do anything. When she asks him why he’s reticent, what she’s done to him, he asks, “Should I answer chronologically or alphabetically?” Later, Watson asks Holmes, regarding Adler, “Are you a masochist?” (Might be an anachronism there. At least we get the point.)

Adler might want Holmes’s help, but she’s every bit the capable fighter he is. She shows her chops on the street when two men accost her, revealing a secreted knife and club to bash the men in seconds.

Nevertheless, despite claiming “I’ve never been in over my head,” Adler is in over her head, proven when Holmes and Watson find her tied to a hog rack about to be burned and sawed in two on a conveyor belt meant for dead pigs. Only Holmes’s quick thinking saves her.

Henchmen (2/8)

Blackwood’s aid comes from the Temple of the Four Orders, a group of magic-inclined British power brokers and an American ambassador. After Blackwood emerges from his tomb, the group elects him as leader of their order, so that he can better lead the group into global domination through fear and application of magic.

These guys don’t do much except enable Blackwood. Had Blackwood succeeded, they’d certainly be killed later by their chosen leader. One of the guys, by the way, was named Coward.

Guy Ritchie movies often dig up some interesting characters, and Sherlock Holmes is no different. A enormous French man named Dredger shows up to smash the potatoes out of Holmes.

Stunts (2/6)

Let’s address the terrific underground fight sequence just as Holmes does, with a narration.

A shirtless Holmes battles a brute of a man possibly 50 pounds heavier. So far he’s toyed with him: slapping his face, applauding his opponent’s moves, and dodging blows. Suddenly, Holmes spots a white handkerchief draped over the side an marked with the symbol of Irene Adler. This is a large and possibly dangerous development for Holmes, so he decides to end the actual fight quickly and with extreme prejudice. Also, the guy spits at his head. You just don’t do that.

“First,” Holmes narrates, “distract target.” In the slow motion interior visualization phase Holmes tosses the handkerchief at the fighter. “Then block his blind jab and cut across left cheek.” We watch these moves as well. In typical Guy Ritchie style, the frame speed changes rapidly, keeping the viewer off balance. “Discombobulate.” This move constitutes a dual slap to the ears.

Bitch-slapper Supreme Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes blocks incoming punches and delivers blows to the midsection. “Weaken right jaw. Now fracture. Break cracked ribs.” The brutal blows take up the whole of the screen. Holmes visualizes blows to the jaw and solar plexus, and also a kick to the diaphragm.

You get a basic anatomy lesson with your movie fight sequence. “In summary, ears ringing, jaw fractured, three ribs cracked, four broken, diaphragm hemorrhaging, physical recovery six weeks, full psychological recovery six months. Capacity to spit at back of head: neutralized.”

Back to present. Holmes delivers the blows in exactly the manner he planned. We notice he thinks as quickly as he thinks correctly. His knowledge of the human body is superb, probably as good as a doctor’s.

Climax (3/6)

Holmes and company arrive at Parliament with ten minutes to spare, time enough to find the bomb or whatever Blackwood plans to use to take control of Britain.

The trio of Holmes, Watson, and Adler discover a large device beneath the Houses of Parliament, guarded by several Blackwood goons/acolytes. Holmes starts planning an attack, but is interrupted by Adler when she starts attacking. The heroes split off. Holmes fights a Man From the Orient, who of course is throwing roundhouse kicks at a perplexed Holmes.

Watson, as usual, does most of the fighting. He draws the sword from his walking stick and slices a guy’s Achilles. He battles up to three men at once while Holmes and Adler sit and ponder the device. Two canisters contain pellets that when heated will turn to gas, which will enter the piping system and flood Parliament, killing many.

Speaking of Parliament, what’s happening up top? Home Secretary Coward and other members of The Order barricade the doors from the inside by forming a human chain. Blackwood appears through a door, looking like Dracula, and explaining his plan. He asks the members to listen to those commoners outside shouting about how Lord Blackwood’s risen from the dead and that’s mental, innit. “Listen to the fear,” he crows. That fear will let him control the world.

Blackwood holds in his hand a device that will remotely activate the gas dispenser Holmes and Adler discovered. The two deduce that the device is tamperproof, but if they could remove the pellets they would effectively disable it. Problem is, the canisters are welded on. They settle on a controlled explosion using Holmes’s pipe to destroy the welding and free the canisters.

While Adler busies herself with powders and explosions and such, Dredger the giant man returns. He kicks Watson through a doorway like an exploding bomb and approaches Holmes. Never in a hurry, this fellow. He’s about to strike when Watson reappears to grab hold of the brute’s jacket.

Dredger bludgeons Holmes and Watson as Blackwood activates the device. Adler sparks her concoction and frees the canisters before the gas mixes, then runs with the canisters through the underground toward any exit. Holmes chases her. Watson is left to fend for himself.

Blackwood senses his plan has failed. He bails Parliament and joins the runaways beneath the building. The three of them run all the way from Parliament to the under-construction Tower Bridge, the bridge over the Thames with the towers.

Adler nearly falls from the unfinished top level as Holmes corners her. “I don’t want to run anymore,” Adler says. Blackwood appears pretty quickly and decides to kick Adler off the edge. Be careful what you wish for, dear.

Holmes and Blackwood do some nifty combat with a sword and a cane. I don’t understand how these wood sticks always stand up to metal swords. Do bad guys not sharpen their blades? Holmes is distracted, checking for signs of life from Adler, whose unconscious body lies on a platform not far from where she fell.

Holmes gains the upper hand against Blackwood and entangles him into chains. Now is the time reveal the devious, masterful plan. But it’s Holmes who does the explaining to Blackwood. I know this a movie, but it’s still a Sherlock Holmes mystery and the detective is going to explain the cases, damn it!

Turns out it was a great plan with plenty of subterfuge but not enough to fool the genius of Baker Street. A toxin teased from rhododendron leaves caused Blackwood’s pulse to stop long enough for Watson to pronounce him dead after Blackwood’s hanging.

An ancient glue composed partly of honey held together the tons of rock of Blackwood’s tomb, easily broken after his “death.” Using slaughtered pigs, Blackwood refined a cyanide-based poison AND its antidote, the latter he gave to his followers so they would survive the Parliament gas attack. They would think it was by magic.

Blackwood, still chained up, using a found ax, takes final failed swing at Holmes, but he falls to his death anyway, not in the river below but hanging above it. He dies, actually, by hanging.

Blackwood, ya ded.

Holmes spends a long time explaining this plan before tending to Adler. Turns out she’s fine. They speak of her shadowy figure. He’s Professor Moriarty, a man just as clever and “infinitely more devious” than Holmes. BOLO, Sherlock.

Turns out Moriarty didn’t care about what he hired Adler to steal. She was a distraction. When she ran with the gas pellet canisters and Holmes chased, no one remained to guard the remote control device, what Moriarty truly wanted. He stole it for himself and will presumably use it at a later date.

Finally, there’s the matter of the botched execution. How did Blackwood survive the hanging? Watson and his new, official, fiancé Mary find out when they visit Holmes and find him hanging from the ceiling. Turns out the executioner affixed a hook to the noose, and this hook distributed the weight to Blackwood’s torso, leaving the neck intact. Simple as that.

Jokes (2/4)

“Shall I answer chronologically or alphabetically,” was a great line, classic Holmes.

I once lived with two of my best friends for nine months in our 20s. We traveled around New Zealand for a month. By the end of our journey we sniped at each other as if we were bitter enemies. Strangers would comment as much. We remain friends today, because such gripes are not enough to damage our friendship.

Such is the Watson/Holmes relationship. They’ve lived together for some time, and the wear shows in the script. Fortunately the audience can enjoy their banter. Light and breezy, Sherlock Holmes lets you smile with its easy humor and repartee between Holmes and Watson, two fast friends who have reached the stage of finishing each other’s sentences.

Setting (4/4)

The size and detail of the sets stand apart in Sherlock Holmes. The movie opens with a horse and carriage driving past the camera up a street. The camera waits and then follows the carriage for a spell up the street. It’s a long route.

Dollies and cranes run all over the sets: the prison area, a huge shipyard, Parliament, Holmes’s large flat (compare to BBC’s Sherlock), and the gigantic underground areas are carefully shot. Green screen is sometimes evident, but that’s OK when you know much of what’s onscreen is real.

Big Ass Bridge

Such details are important because they are what Holmes notices to solve his cases. The redhead’s flat was the most important location, and it was littered with detritus and materiel.

Commentary (0/2)

Part of what makes Sherlock Holmes timeless is the apolitical nature of his cases. The genius villains are after power, money, or both, but rarely do they have an interest in Britain’s colonial interests or fighting anarchists or any of-the-moment ideas. Holmes stories are rarely Ripped From the Headlines.

Nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes steers close to some commentary on society. Blackwood is interested in reclaiming a colony it once held across the Atlantic, now called the United States of America. That’s about it. Sounds great.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Talk about diversity–there’s a French man and a gypsy in Sherlock Holmes.

Actual credit to the crew for making Adler an integral part of the story. She’s on hand at the finish to disable the gassing device, and is the person who actually does it. Women hardly feature in the Conan Doyle tales, so it’s easy for the female characters to feel contrived in Holmes adaptations. Not the case here.


  • terrific hats, male and female

Summary (34/68): 50%

Guy Ritchie, surprisingly, is the perfect director for Sherlock Holmes. He brings energy and punch to this adaptation. No staid detectives here. Downey’s is a fighting Holmes, a scrappy lad as ready to fight a street urchin for fun as commune with nobility in secret society meetings. And that’s just like the stories.