Hitchcock said of his 1940 film, Rebecca, his first American movie and his only Oscar winner, that it was a very good film, but it is not a Hitchcock film. Similarly, you can say of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, that it is a very good film, but not a Sherlock Holmes film.
If you read between the lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories, you can find comic book elements. Even fisticuffs. But it is only this aspect that Ritchie has embraced in his adaptation and, while it is a fantastic blockbuster in the mould of the modern superhero or action flick, there is no mystery. There’s no room for intrigue. Robert Downey Jr.’s shabby Sherlock frequently reveals already deduced plot points conveniently hidden until required, like a conjurer. We’re not here for a Sunday afternoon Poirot mystery but this is lazy. Even a Batman film makes more effort to convince us that brain power is his real super-power. Not so here. The narrative assumes you already know Sherlock and of what he is capable.
Worse, the plot is because of Sherlock, not in spite of him. Villains are inveigling the infamous super-sleuth in their machinations immediately. This modern tendency of must having a thread to pick at seems a response to the comic book genre in which it is justified; the nuclear powered freaks are brought down to earth by soap-opera shenanigans but we don’t need it in everything. Couldn’t Moriaty have kept his powder dry for one act of this version and let Sherlock follow up on a couple of standard police jobs first? See also Blofeld turning out to be Bond’s brother, everyone knowing Doctor Who and, speaking of Who writer Stephen Moffat, even the BBC Sherlock. It must have really annoyed Ritchie that the Beeb would make a contemporary and very successful Sherlock that same year, but even that fell apart after the first series.
After we accept it’s not a faithful Sherlock, there’s no puzzle to solve and even fan-serving twists are rushed, what are we left with? A hell of a lot of fun, that’s what. A Victorian Western buddy cop movie, brazenly generous with time and detail with a barnstorming score by Hans Zimmer. It’s as chaotically entertaining as that sounds. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law bounce off one another beautifully (traditionally, Holmes was the high functioning junkie but addiction is a flaw for Watson too here) and they love each other like Riggs and Murtaugh. The pace is furious, the script light and funny, and there’s a cute conceit that slows down time to have Sherlock predict moves in a scrap, of which he has many. Meanwhile, the sets are beautiful, rich in anachronistic detail. While I wish he could have given us a plot he claimed at the time to have ambition for, Richie has such a love for London and these characters that the realisation is beyond reproach. With this and Man From U.N.C.L.E., he’s danced around a Bond aesthetic and it’s brilliant.
Which brings us to the risible sequel, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. What on earth went wrong? A shift in writers perhaps? The relationship between Holmes and Watson is possibly even better with Downey Jr. and Law ever more comfortable with each other, but in a shock development, Stephen Fry is unthinkably miscast as Mycroft Holmes. Otherwise, the predictive fight moves are now tired and the plot is a mess, breathlessly trying to get to the Moriaty showdown as quickly as possible, rendering two thirds of the film a rush of pulled punches. It feels like a trilogy where they couldn’t be bothered with making part 2. Ritchie no longer seems as invested and is using it as a sandpit to exercise other favourite movie styles he’s not had a chance to try. There is an utterly superb sequence with the band of heroes escaping cannon fire on a run through the woods but it belongs in a war movie. The less said about the pony sequence with Morricone music-cues the better.
The story is as daft as the first one but now with added demonstrable lack of effort. Sequelitis aside, not showing how Holmes learns of Moriaty (Jared Harris) is unforgivable. We’ve even further abandoned the idea that this is a detective story. Instead, a victim of its own hype, it wants to capitalise on the most famous Sherlock Holmes plot, The Final Problem. It makes for a lacklustre experience on a rewatch and the famous battle of intellects has no sense of weight. Still, it is watchable for the banter between Law and Downey Jr. and a fun homoerotic subtext favoured of an 80s cop movie so obvious it has to be on purpose: Sherlock in one scene dresses as a woman and replaces the underused Mary (Kelly Reilly) on Dr. Watson’s honeymoon. Later, the two men share what would have been a first dance for the newlyweds. Jarred Harris meanwhile is marvellous albeit with very little to do as the villain the film wants instead of the one we deserve.
Without the pressure of The Final Problem on the production, maybe the mooted third film will explore a fresh mystery? We can but hope, even if it’s not needed. The best modern detective mysteries will be ably accounted for by Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequels, but I’ll still welcome a third run of Holmes and Watson’s amiable bickering.
Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows pose interesting questions of 4K. There isn’t a huge amount of difference in the superb quality of the transfers, but the quality of the cinematography, of the film’s very aesthetic, make the first film a must-see that 4K enhances. The sequel is rather dull in comparison.
The upscaled 3840 x 2160p resolution image of Sherlock Holmes is fantastic. The film has a real character with a rather muted palette, clearly so by design, such that it looks like a Hammer film with a distinctly British flavour of early 1970s. Deep, gorgeous blacks with colours and shade persisting even in night and similarly dark scenes, and a pale tone to faces contrast with textures and bright objects that shine and pop with detail. Stand out moments include Sherlock’s messy, busy flat and the production design on a dilapidated workshop that Sherlock and Watson explore shortly before a truly blistering fight in a shipyard. The outdoor scenes, seemingly with natural light or a brilliant facsimile of, are just as rich in detail and the HDR has a lot to work with. It looks superb and feels like a different film from the blu-ray. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot has a fine CV of period pieces and he brings that experience to bear on Ritchie ‘s London.
Rousselot returns for Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, again with an upscaled 3840 x 2160p resolution. His detail is on point, with the same praise for contrast and atmosphere. Irene Adler’s velvety dress is so textured you could feel it. Her narrative replacement Noomi Rapace is an amalgamation of dark colours and jewellery plus introduced in a room filled with smoke. It’s all fabulous, and yet, lacks the personality and detail of the first film. It feels rushed whereas there was thought before in every moment. Compared like for like the transfers are a match but Game of Shadows is missing enthusiasm. That is until the jaw-dropping desperate escape through green and frosty woods; lots of slow motion tree explosions, with splinters and fire. It really is as if Ritchie had a great idea for a short film and had to pad it out. It makes for an uneven experience both in the film and in the presentation.
No Dolby Atmos but both films feature fantastic DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks, both with excellent Hans Zimmer scores. The first film, again, has an almost detached personality in the dialogue that lends itself to that old fashioned British style. Game of Shadows is possibly the better track, technically more ambitious. Both run the gamut of smaller, dialogue heavy scenes and huge explosions. Both handled with style.
As from the original Blu-rays, both films feature Maximum Movie Mode. In lieu of a commentary, MMM is pretty good, turning the film into a kind of TED talk. You can get to the Focus Points separately. Guy Ritchie is an amiable if serious host but the detail is astonishing. Robert Downey Jr. is a funnier host for the same method on Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows.
Sherlock Holmes is a worthy upgrade to 4K. The HDR reveals the full extent of Guy Ritchie’s ambitious visual take on the classic Detective. The sequel is equally as fine a transfer but the film is a lesser beast so harder to recommend when the Blu-Ray is perfectly fine and still includes the excellent Maximum Movie Mode.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum