Guy Ritchie has always struck me as the sort of filmmaker who *could* make good films if he would just stop fidgeting for a minute and focus a little. His filmmaking style is frenetic, and his movies are full of action, although it frequently just feels like action for the sake of action, which amounts to just going through the motions. His stories are generally about action too: men doing manly stuff, like boxing and fighting and shooting other men. Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is no different. Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) is prone to fisticuffs, and so is his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law). Those two can mix it up with the roughest, toughest goons in Victorian London, and still bicker like an old married couple back in the cozy confines of 221B Baker Street. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Unlike previous iterations of Arthur Conan Doyle's proto-superhero, this revisionist (no deerstalker hat!), digital age Sherlock Holmes comes replete with lots of special effects: explosions, collapsing bridges, dangerous shipyards, and assorted mayhem. Holmes and Watson get into all sorts of close scrapes while chasing down an arch villain named Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Blackwood is an occultist who, after Holmes apprehends him for murder, apparently rises from the dead, hellbent on destroying the world or bringing about a new world order or something like that. Anyway, it involves fire and smoke and more murder.
But back to Holmes. When he's not working on a case, he's a wreck. Bored, strung out, twitchy, and possibly under the influence of substances stronger and goofier than the cocaine for which the great detective had a well-known predilection. He's miserable after he catches Blackwood and no longer has anything interesting to do. So he's naturally delighted when Blackwood returns, and the game is once more, as they say, afoot. Holmes, in addition to his fine powers of deduction, is a mean brawler (emphasis on the mean). While he is prone to the traditionally Holmesian explanation and recap of his deductive reasoning, this movie is not really about Holmes' brains. Holmes' doesn't even seem all that devoted to bring a brainiac. This movie is about Holmes' brawn, and so it provides handy slow motion pre-enactments (followed by a rapid enactments) of the various blows Holmes' plans to deliver, in their precise sequence, in order to inflict maximal physical disability on his opponent of the moment. That's twice the pounding for the pound sterling, which is twice as much as your old school Holmes ever supplied. He also leaps out of tall buildings.
Watson, who is far more mentally stable than Holmes, attempts to settle down with his soon-to-be fiancee Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), but Holmes won't have it, and does his best to sabotage the romance without being too obvious about it. This makes Watson rather peevish -- but truth be told, everyone is rather peevish in Sherlock Holmes, including Holmes, Mary, Blackwood, Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), and various malefactors, ruffians, and members of parliament. The least peevish person would be Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an American thief of the female persuasion who makes Holmes extra twitchy. And even she gets a bit annoyed now and then.
The plot is the least interesting thing about Sherlock Holmes. Downey and Law are the best -- they're jolly good together, toying with the story's none-too-subtle homoerotic subtext, squabbling about their divergent (or are they?) lifeplans, and busting bad guy heads. The story drags a bit from time to time, and there are plot points which exist only to enable action set pieces, which in turn don't advance the plot or serve the story, but are there just because. Why set the denouement on the still-under-construction Tower Bridge? No reason, really, except that it was possible to do so, and it allowed for a traditional cliff-hanger kind of a finale (to bookend the traditional carriage-racing-through-dark-London-streets beginning). There is no shortage of things to look at in Sherlock Holmes -- every scene bustles with activity and atmosphere, from dingy, grey and muddy London to the smoky, dark rooms at 221B Baker Street, to the various grotesque laboratories, abattoirs, and dungeons where dark deeds and headbutting occur. Ritchie generally keeps the pace brisk, and takes full advantage of the comedy and tension in the turned-about Holmes/Watson partnership. If the story drags, the movie is frequently enlivened by snappy dialogue delivered fast with sharp, crisp humor. Holmes and Watson are an odd couple -- one is jittery and disheveled, the other is cool and debonair -- and their jokey, bromantic relationship is the only thing about Sherlock Holmes that really sticks, and really entertains. The rest is just Victorian popcorn -- maximally noisy and restless, a little salty, a little stale, but enjoyable enough while it lasts.