With their recent re-release on 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray, as well as confirmation from new director Dexter Fletcher that Sherlock Holmes 3, which is still currently scheduled for December 2021, has been put on the back burner once more due to Covid-19 complications, it seems a good time to revisit Guy Ritchie’s re-imagining of the iconic Baker Street sleuth and have a look at what makes his two films so effective and enjoyable, as well as why they are considered controversial adaptations by some of the vast Holmes fanbase.
Sherlock Holmes, the first film in the franchise, hit screens in 2009 and offered a fresh take that eschewed the rigid structure of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original novels in favour of a fast-paced and altogether more bombastic version, trading consideration and deliberation for snappy dialogue and a rollercoaster ride of a narrative that embraces a gothic darkness that was alien to the almost oppressively decorous, genteel original works. It was followed by Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in 2011, which further embraced the action that formed such a key part of the first film, blending its mystery with an even more bombastic narrative that leans in to its popcorn cinema sensibilities while still offering a lot to sink the teeth into narratively.
Some things stay the same: we remain firmly in Victorian London, Holmes is an exceptional detective who lives at 221B Baker Street and works with his closest friend and confidante Dr John Watson, and the case always drives the story. These things do not happen in the same way however, and we are treated to an altogether different version of the vast majority of the characters as each is updated to match the tone of a film eager to provide them more edge and vibrancy than the source material and most other adaptations. Robert Downey Jr. plays Sherlock Holmes, and his version of the character is thoroughly unbothered by decorum or organisation. He lives a bohemian lifestyle that counterbalances his brilliance when it comes to detective work, and is also an extremely proficient martial artist who remains in remarkably good shape despite his regular dalliances with drugs and alcohol.
It is a version feels far more human that the famous detective often does, harbouring a petty, impetuous side that Downey Jr. embraces thoroughly. His performance is perfectly suited to such a Holmes, and the character’s brilliance shines through just as much as his neuroses as Downey Jr. delivers his lines with that familiar wit and confidence. This is adaptation at its best, taking elements of the original Holmes character and putting a unique twist on them to access a new unexplored avenue for Holmes.
Another key facet of the films is Holmes’ relationship with Watson, played here by Jude Law as a more sensible, straight-laced counterbalance to Holmes, though not one lacking in personality or intelligence like he has been portrayed before. This Watson gives as good as he gets when it comes to witty repartee and the pair’s old married couple-esque relationship is a key facet of what makes it so enjoyable. Elements are taken from the Conan Doyle original, where he is actually much more intelligent than might be suspected, but this version of him is very capable. He is an adept fighter and detective in his own right and doesn’t languish in his mastermind friend’s shadow as much as he often does in other adaptations, playing a key role in unravelling the mysteries.
Other characters are equally well characterised, from the likes of Rachel McAdams as an engaging Irene Adler, whose relationship with Holmes is far more passionate than it was ever described in the original stories and thus a lot of fun to explore, to villains such as Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) who is genuinely intimidating and threatening, and Jared Harris’ version of Moriarty, whose cold and calculating nature is much more traditional Moriarty and is wonderful in its own right. Further mentions should go to Stephen Fry in an entertaining turn as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, and Kelly Reilly as Dr Watson’s wife Mary, both of whom are avidly involved in the films’ trademark fast-paced banter.
Guy Ritchie is well known for his high-octane action films which embrace that fast-paced and combative street-fighting style that has formed the cornerstone for his success, and he brings that feeling into these adaptations wholeheartedly. This led to some consternation from more classical Holmes fans that perhaps the good name of the detective had been sullied by the need to ‘bring him down’ from his usual lofty, cerebral heights and mire him in a big-budget action set-piece slugfest, but really this adherence to tradition is a bore.
Excessive fidelity to an ideal of a character is overrated, and there is the best of both worlds to be found here and some of the films’ innovations (the slow-motion sequences especially) are a lot of fun, allowing any more gimmicky frayed edges to be forgiven. Ritchie certainly has a topsy-turvy record (to say the least) when it comes to his general filmography but what seemed to be a foolhardy choice initially for the franchise turned out to be an inspired one as he injected a sense of freshness into the well-trodden formula that makes them feel unique and original while always being Sherlock Holmes adaptations.
This feeling is heightened further by excellent scores by Hans Zimmer, who produces some of his best ever work on these films and adds to their atmosphere immensely, and wonderful set design and cinematography by Sarah Greenwood and Philippe Rousselot respectively who together craft environments that only enhance the feelings of tension and excitement. As a whole, both films are rollicking and thoroughly entertaining thrill-rides that excite as much as they intrigue, and their revisionism should be embraced rather than belittled. They aren’t perfect of course: Rachel McAdams deserved a lot more to do with Irene Adler, especially after she was so well set up, and the second film can easily be accused of getting a little too convoluted by the end, but the artistic intention to take these age-old narratives in a new direction is a commendable one, and something the films do not get enough respect for doing. Here is hoping that this long-awaited third film will bring even more interesting ideas to the table.
There are suggestions that these films will eventually have a cinematic universe of their own in the mould of the MCU, an idea that Downey Jr. and his production company Team Downey (his wife and producer Susan Downey is the other key member of the team) certainly seem to be keen on. This would be another bold move that will be interesting to follow for better or worse, but what we have so far are valuable additions to the pantheon of adaptations of Holmes. It will be interesting to see what Dexter Fletcher, a talented director in his own right, brings to the next one, and how the already extravagant and exuberant style of the first two will be expanded upon, especially a decade after the previous film was released. Regardless of the outcome, however, it will remain true that the two adaptations that already exist are excellent examples of how to revamp a classic character and narrative innovatively.
Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are available on 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray now.