So I went in trying not to be one of Those Fans, you know, the ones who whine through the whole thing that THIS IS NOT LIKE THE BOOK, because: duh. I've been in the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and His Dark Materials fandoms, kids. This ain't my first time at the disappointment rodeo. So, instead, I endeavored to go in and be impressed by how many things were from the book: the engagement to Mary Morstan, Watson's gambling, Watson's limp (I cannot tell you how happy Watson's limp made me, for no good reason), Holmes picking at the violin, the bit with the scratched-up pawnshop watch, a few lines taken from the stories here and there--and you know what? I liked that they never busted out the Elementary, My Dear Watson line, because that wasn't in the original canon. I got the feeling that the people making this movie knew their shit, even if they changed a lot of it up and invented even more. And I appreciate that, even if you're going to gloss it up for The Kids Today. Honestly, there are a lot of things they didn't have to make up that would surprise you--Canon!Holmes really could kick your ass six ways from Sunday. What was it he knew, like--jujitsu or some shit? And I do believe boxing and swordfighting were mentioned in the stories at times. Usually what would happen is that some ruffian would be all like ARRGHH I HAVE A PISTOL OR MAYBE A WALKING STICK, HOW DARE YOU INTERRUPT MY CRIMES and then prim, gentlemanly Holmes would be all WAPOW! with one blow in some arcane but impressive manner, and there you were. So no, there weren't ten-minute scenes of sweaty, choppily-edited boxing in the stories, Guy Ritchie, but I appreciated how he went through and slowed things down and showed us the incredibly precise, foresighted workings of Holmes' brain. Like, to the point where Holmes thinks about all the many, varied ways he's going to break some thug's bones and how long it'll take him to recuperate. And then he does it. I don't know, I just loved that.
The thing I struggled with, actually, was the heavy supernatural element. Which may sound stupid coming from someone who was first introduced to Sherlock Holmes via The Hound of the Baskervilles in middle school, but the very first scene here is a big dramatic ooga-booga Satanic ritual. (Note: The movie starts here in medias res, which is fine, but this bit goes on for so long and plays so much like the climactic action scene you get two hours into a movie that I genuinely considered getting up and asking a manager if we'd started on the wrong reel. So if you get there and it's a Satanic ritual/action scene that goes on for ten actual minutes... yes, that's really the beginning of the movie.) And a large swath of plot is occupied by a secret occult society and its inner workings and how it runs the Empire and I was like, dude, I saw this movie when it was called From Hell, wtf. So as much as I enjoyed the scenery or the banter or the fight choreography, I kept sitting there with a slightly uncomfortable sense of WHY YOU DO THIS filtering down through the dusty slats of my brain attic. Like--this is Guy Ritchie, he knows crime movies; this could have just been a straightforward British gang conspiracy or something, why'd we have to get into human sacrifice before the opening credits even ran? And then there are Significant Crows and secret sex rituals and diplomats bursting into flame and what? Really? And then we finally got to the part at the end where Holmes Explains It All, as he always does, and he was all (MAJOR SPOILER) "So basically Lord Blackwood faked all the devil stuff with, like, cyanide and rhododendrons and shit," and I forgave everyone everything, because that is how it's supposed to go. (In fact, I wonder if Mark Strong's eyelid fluttering was a mistake or left in on purpose when Watson was checking Dead Lord Blackwood's pulse near the beginning.) So this is why I want to see the movie a second time, now that I'm past the NOOOOOO WHYYYYYY panic and can enjoy it for the glossy, pulpy fun it is. In fact, the more I think about it, the more, in retrospect, I like it.
(What else... the Hans Zimmer score is unexpectedly twangly; the cinematography is gorgeous, particularly in that final scene on the bridge; I loved the slo-mo no-sound part where Shit Got Blown Up Like Whoa; the sketch effect over the credits was really cool; Rachel McAdams works a fierce brown smoky eye. Seriously, I was distracted by the slightly anachronistic fabulosity of it. OH AND ALSO: You know the trope about the Talking Villain, the one who monologues just long enough for the endangered hero to figure out how to escape and/or kill the villain? Well, SPOILER, what we had here was Lord Blackwood* hanging on by his fingernails while Holmes explained the villain's plans to the villain, because that is so totally the kind of thing Holmes always does or else we wouldn't ever know what was going on, and why not? A lot of times, the hero doesn't kill the villain; he just stands there and holds him captive until the authorities get there. Might as well chat while we're waiting on top of the half-built suspension bridge, you know? And then Blackwood gets hold of a nearby axe or hatchet or whatever while Holmes is running his mouth, slips it into his pocket, and... never gets to use it, because the important bridgey whatever part collapses and he falls to his ironic death. WHAT NOW, TROPE? WHAT. NOW.)
* I was a bit put out that our two main bad guys were named Lord Blackwood and Lord Coward. I'm assuming that their other partner in crime, Lord Grimtraitor (of the Evilshire Grimtraitors), got left on the cutting-room floor.
The one truly fundamental departure from the stories' universe, honestly, is the relationship between Holmes and Irene Adler. I'm sure that various parties of Sherlockians have been arguing this since the dawn of time (there's a particularly complex theory that Holmes actually marries Adler in "A Scandal in Bohemia" rather than just "witness" her wedding to someone else), but my feeling was always that Holmes was very asexual--the extreme embodiment of "mind over matter"--or at the least, fairly un-heterosexual, and that Adler mostly fascinated him as The One That Got Away. Not the woman who got away, but the antagonist, and one for whom he had a certain fascinated, begrudging respect. I mean, he won't even call her by name after she outfoxes him. That she was The Woman, as Watson says he always called her, suggests not that his "love" for her blinds him to other women, but that (in a quaintly sexist way) there are no other women as clever and devious and worthy of his professional respect, and so there are no other women in his mind at all: what use would he have for them? So the moment you bring in scruffy, rakish Holmes and an Irene who says, "Do you remember the Grand? I got our old room there," it's all over. All that is gone. Did we all pay ten bucks to see Robert Downey Jr. play an asexual Holmes? HALE NO. So there's a point where you have to let go, is what I'm saying.
Besides, this movie isn't about the once and/or future sexcapades of Holmes and Irene; it is very plainly an ode to the epic love of Holmes and Watson. I am serious: the movie does not even attempt to be coy about this. Honestly, that big action sequence where the ship-in-progress gets wrecked? I was shocked that Watson, when he leaps to protect Holmes, does not actually fall onto him in the emergency brokeback position. Irene's tangled affections for Holmes are merely a plot point; they serve only to explain how she gets dragged into the whole mess. Mary is simply an obstacle to their love--first because she is, in fact, going to be Watson's wife, and then because Watson's pissed at the way Holmes treated her at dinner (which, FYI, Canon!Holmes never would have done; he didn't have much use for women, but he was unfailingly chivalrous), which is then solved when Mary goes up to Holmes all like AVENGE THE MANNER IN WHICH MY FIANCÉ GOT EXPLODED and then Watson's back five minutes later in a sling all "I got better," ready to get back to detecting. (CAROLINE BINGLEY! Jesus, that gnawed at my brain through the whole movie. I knew I'd seen that actress somewhere.) And, I have to tell you--the movie ends on a super-subtle open-ended TUNE IN NEXT TIME moment, but: Watson does get married, at least in the books. And then, because he's a doctor and works weird, late, and erratic hours as it is... he goes running off with Holmes on more adventures at all hours of the day and night anyway. And Mary's always at the window indulgently waving goodbye like, Oh, BOYS, because she knows, you guys. She knows.
And for those of you who don't believe me, and think that I must be some delusional slash-happy fanpoodle and that this movie is just pandering to the current bromance trend, may I cite a passage from "The Three Garridebs" (1924):
In an instant [Killer Evans] had whisked out a revolver from his breast and had fired two shots. I felt a sudden hot sear as if a red-hot iron had been pressed to my thigh. There was a crash as Holmes's pistol came down on the man's head. I had a vision of [Evans] sprawling upon the floor with blood running down his face while Holmes rummaged him for weapons. Then my friend's wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.
"You’re not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!"
It was worth a wound--it was worth many wounds--to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.
"It's nothing, Holmes. It's a mere scratch."
He ripped up my trousers with his pocket-knife.
My case: I rest it.