Ritchie, you likely recall, made his splashy debut with the reasonbly awesome British gangster picture Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998, and has never done anything remotely that good since: Snatch in 2000 was nothing but a decent retread of the same material, while Revolver and RocknRolla were both significantly less than decent. I have not seen his Swept Away remake, and I cannot begin to imagine why I would ever wish to. He never seemed, to me, like the right choice to make a new film version of the adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective, and my every suspicion has been borne out: this Sherlock Holmes is a great deal more indebted to Ritchie's particular brand of stylistically exhausting action-adventure than to Conan Doyle's elegant prose and intensely intellectual anti-hero.
I don't mean to come across as some crabby Conan Doyle purist, mind you, because nobody likes a disgruntled conservative fanboy, but stick with me here.
Let it not be argued that Ritchie doesn't have a certain skill with crafting such fight scenes on a model well-suited to modern blockbuster cinema. But that is both a compliment and an insult all in one, really. Ritchie's aesthetic has long been heavy on the darting camera and slow-motion style made popular in the wake of The Matrix, and his Sherlock Holmes is absolutely no exception. Which has at least the capacity to be fun, except that the execution is fairly botched, and the film comes across as much more antic than exciting: it keeps on going and pounding and none of the scenes are cut together in a way that lets you follow the action all that terribly well. And Jesus, but there's a lot of it! The ads promised a buddy comedy mystery with lights of action-adventure, but the balance is much out of proportion.
The only thing that keeps the slightly chaotic film together is the interplay between Holmes and Watson, played respectively by Downey and Jude Law. I am not certain that this is entirely in accordance with the film's intentions. What makes Sherlock Holmes interesting, when it is interesting, is the unabashed homoerotic take on the material. Homoeroticism is obvious not a new element in Holmes scholarship of course, but this film is much more forthright about than most; it is text rather than subtext. It can be somewhat amusing to see that Law is fairly well alone in committing himself completely to this angle; but I did "interesting" by intent, and not "good", for there's something a bit garish and calculated about the way the men's relationship is played for humor. Of a certainty, I'd rather see something with the comparative wit and grace of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes to the braying lad comedy on display here.
Downey is, as should be no surprise whatsoever, the best-in-show here and really the only particularly positive element of the whole. Playing Holmes with the intense stare of the overcaffeinated, he nails the neurotic, socially unthinking elements of the character's persona, although as a whole the performance feels too much like the actor's bag of tics, carefully assembled to a pattern rather than erupting naturally out of the character, like Downey's fantastic turn in Iron Man. It is certainly not one of his stronger roles, although it is rare indeed that he's not fun to watch onscreen.
The supporting cast around him is nowhere up the same task, especially Rachel McAdams, giving the worst performance of her career, apparently inspired by a lengthy study of the expressions and charisma found in the cooler at a seafood market. But the role she was stuck with is of virtually no value to the plot except as a device, and a particularly functional tool meant to prove that Holmes likes women. Law is decent but has little energy; Mark Strong is not nearly the same thundering villain he was in The Young Victoria.
Meanwhile, the story is vastly convoluted, far more than can be at all justified, and sets up a sequel with appallingly reckless abandon; and for a high-budget feature, the whole thing looks awfully cheap, especially those glassy CGI sets. The costumes and production design are convincing but hardly have the opulence of a major production. And Ritchie's particular directing quirks guarantee that nearly all of the setpieces are far more dizzy and draining than they are pleasant.
All told, this is just a mindless summer popcorn movie, except it was released in December. Which makes its particular brand of mediocrity much more odd and noticeable, but once your burn off the novelty all that remains is a very dully entertaining buddy picture that is just too hectic to really work, and provides nothing even vaguely intellectually stimulating to keep you going through the laggy parts of the plot.