In the opening sequence, a former FBI agent named Carter Morstan receives an unwelcome visit by a man named Small. In the ensuing struggle, a gunshot rings out. Subsequently, a body is wrapped into a carpet and set alight.
Jane Watson works as a private detective in Boston, Massachusetts, but faces financial ruin because she approaches her job from a more humane angle – much to the dislike of her secretary, Ms Houston – therefore she is eventually forced to sell the English country estate of her ancestor, John Watson. She visits the old house one last time, where a lawyer hands her an envelope with detailed instructions inside. Following those instructions, Jane finds a hidden basement containing a primitive cryogenic capsule with a man lying inside, whom she thaws.
The man inside the capsule turns out to be her ancestor's friend and partner, the legendary Sherlock Holmes himself . He had received a 'parting gift' from a lost brother of his old nemesis, James Moriarty, which infected him with the bubonic plague. In hopes of receiving a cure somewhere in the future, Holmes and Watson had devised the desperate plan of putting Holmes into suspended animation to save Holmes' life. Fortunately, though she is at a loss to explain the recurrence of the plague to the doctor she seeks out, Jane manages to administer the cure to Holmes.
Holmes soon finds himself in a world which has changed a lot in his absence, and lacking an alternative, he accompanies Jane to America, where they are quickly drawn into a very difficult case. Someone has ransacked Jane's office and left a message signed Small. Afterward, they receive a visit from Carter Morstan's daughter Violet, who asks Jane to investigate her father's murder and states that the message found in Jane's office was meant for her. Jane and Holmes (who uses one of his old aliases, Holmes Sigerson) mean to ask the FBI, but the higher ranks are stone-walling, and soon Holmes and Jane find themselves under the close scrutiny of a young agent named Tobias. When they both begin to backtrack three of Morstan's former colleagues and friends, they find one of them dead.
With some aid from Tobias, Holmes and Jane finally receive the information they need: Just before their retirement from the FBI, Morstan and his colleagues were involved in a hijacking case, and the simultaneous disappearance of several millions of counterfeit money. The perpetrator in the hijacking case was one Peter Small, and when the four agents were suspected of having stolen the counterfeit money, they refused to take a lie detector test and subsequently quit the FBI.
It doesn't take Holmes and Jane long to guess that the counterfeit money was used to pay off Small, and the four FBI agents had kept the ransom for themselves, so the idea that Small is exacting revenge on his betrayers seems the most logical motive. But Small seems to stay one step ahead of them: their next candidate of the four is murdered as they try to warn him, and when the last survivor finally leads them to the cache where they have hidden the ransom money, it is already gone.
In the end, however, mainly thanks to his aroused interest in the Watergate scandal, Holmes finally deduces the truth of the scheme. The culprit is actually Carter Morstan himself; soon after he and his colleagues had hidden the money, he had appropriated all of it for himself. Small had been killed during their struggle, and Morstan decided to kill his comrades in crime before they could discover his duplicity, and then frame Small for the murders. With a cunning scheme, Holmes manages to lure Morstan out of hiding and right into the arms of the FBI, resolving the case. The film ends with the prospect of Jane establishing a relationship with Tobias, and Holmes forming an attachment to Violet Morstan.
- Michael Pennington – Sherlock Holmes
- Margaret Colin – Jane Watson
- Daniel Benzali – Ross
- Connie Booth – Violet
- Nicholas Guest – Toby
- William Hootkins – Spelman
- Paul Maxwell – Hopkins
- Barry Morse – Carter Morstan
Holmes in the modern world
The content of the film attempted to blend comedy and mystery. A fight scene, for example, featured Holmes' knowledge of the martial art Baritsu, failing him miserably to a few well-placed punches. Other scenes featured Holmes learning to drive, learning that "television is radio with pictures" only to wonder what radio is, and learning the modern definition of the term "adult bookstore", as well as quickly developing an aversion to air travel.
However, Holmes was not consistently shown as helpless – one scene, for example, depicts him using his skills to successfully impersonate a Los Angeles police detective (using a badge from a child's police toy kit) to bluff a security guard that had arrested Jane.
- The details of the main plot are adapted from The Sign of the Four.
- Baritsu is mentioned in the short story "The Final Problem".
Behind the scenes
At the time, the film was presented as a pilot for a possible series. Despite some excellent reviews from television critics, the show was never picked up.