There's a mystery at the heart of "Sherlock Holmes," and it's not the one the great master of detection has been called on to solve. It's how a film that has so many good things going for it has turned out to be solid but not spectacular.
Solid, of course, is more than many studio films can muster these days, but we expect better when we're dealing with the world's greatest consulting detective, someone who has been played by more than 70 actors in something like 200 films, good enough for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records.
We also expect more when Robert Downey Jr. is in as fine a form as he is here, bringing an energetic insouciance as well as a raffish air of bohemian disrepute to a man who lives by the motto, "Data, data, data, I cannot make bricks without clay."
As directed by Guy Ritchie, Downey's take on the dean of 221-B Baker St. is, as the spin on the film has emphasized, considerably more physical than what moviegoers are used to. His Holmes is as much Victorian action hero as master deducer, a buff and muscular lad who likes to indulge in bare-knuckle brawling and fits producer Joel Silver's description of being "like James Bond in 1891."
It's helpful to add in the brisk style of British filmmaker Ritchie, best-remembered for two of his earlier films, "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels." A director with onscreen energy to burn, Ritchie initially has fun with this story of Holmes versus master criminal Lord Blackwood, a man who dabbles in the black arts, says gnomic things like "death is only the beginning" and threatens to end civilization as we know it.
On the other hand, though, all this "new Holmes" talk is something of a smoke screen. What is problematic about the film is not so much the change in character as the change in the nature of the classic Sherlock Holmes vehicle. This Hollywoodized epic has attempted to do too much, has had to serve too many masters. That has, in turn, given the picture an air of trying too hard, which is the one thing Sherlock Holmes should never have to do.
No less than four credited screenwriters had a hand in the Holmes script (story by producer Lionel Wigram and Michael Robert Johnson, script by Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg) and apparently director Ritchie took a pass as well. With so many writers and so many focuses, it's no surprise the film feels more disjointed than organic.
In addition to creating a new persona for Holmes while remaining as faithful as they could to the tradition, a difficult circle to square, this cadre of writers also wanted to give more respect to the character of Holmes' wingman Dr. John Watson (played by Jude Law).
As opposed to the bumbler of previous film versions, Watson's been made into a handsome man of action, but he's also been placed in a relationship with Holmes that feels too much like "The Odd Couple." With their connection damaged by Watson's decision to move out and get married, the two men bicker almost ceaselessly over who left the stove on and who should be wearing what.
Ritchie's energetic style helps us push these issues aside and enjoy ourselves for awhile, but it can do little with "Sherlock Holmes' " most ill-fitting element, its attempt to turn itself into a typical studio picture by making room for a series of big-ticket action sequences like a chase through a slaughterhouse and a shipyard battle. They pump the film up to more than two hours (a brisk 90 minutes would have been more effective), and they make what should be singular come off as generic.
The plot itself is promising, starting withLord Blackwood (an excellent Mark Strong) being stopped by Holmes, Watson and Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) just before he commits a dastardly black-magic deed. Blackwood's apparent ability to cheat death terrifies the metropolis ("London in Terror" headlines obligingly shout), and only Holmes has a chance of figuring out just which game is afoot.
Adding yet another uncertain element to the mix is the appearance of the mysterious Irene Adler, celebrated among Sherlockians as the only woman to fascinate the great detective as well as the only adversary to ever best him. Unfortunately, the usually excellent and very contemporary Rachel McAdams is simply miscast here in a part that cries out for the kind of deeper Victorian soulfulness that someone like Rachel Weisz can project.
More than any one big thing, it is the accumulation of these kinds of small misadventures that trip up "Sherlock Holmes." They so cramp its style that instead of appreciating the good things we've been given, we end up wishing for the film that might have been. It's a mug's game, but currently it's the only one in town.