The sleuth is back and better than ever.
On paper it sounds terrifying. A reimagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective by Madonna’s ex-husband who makes crappy gangster movies? I was worried. (I haven’t even bothered to see a Guy Ritchie film since since his 2002 Madge-induced vanity project Swept Away, and this happens to be my job.)
But somehow Sherlock Holmes turns out to be a delight—the most pleasant surprise I’ve had at the movies since Star Trek .
Folks who grew up on the tweedy elegance of Basil Rathbone’s 1940s B movie and his deerstalker cap are probably going to quibble with Ritchie’s presentation of Robert Downey Jr. as a loutish, manic-depressive Holmes.
Granted, I haven’t read Doyle’s books since junior high, but wasn’t Sherlock originally a drug-addicted slob who boxes and lacks social graces? Further research may be required, but I doubt this particular interpretation is as far off the original mark as detractors will pretend.
Ritchie’s 1891 London is a steampunk shithole, where Downey’s dissipated Holmes shacks up with Jude Law’s fussy Dr. Watson and disappears into long and potentially suicidal benders whenever the two don’t have a new case to crack. Alas, Watson’s out to ruin their besotted Baker Street living arrangement, proposing marriage to the lovely Mary (Kelly Reilly) and inciting all sorts of abandonment issues within our dysfunctional detective’s broken heart.
In the meantime, an old case is reopened. Black-magic practitioner and royal weirdo Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) somehow survived his death sentence by hanging, and is now angling to reclaim those pesky American colonies with the help of a little superstitious mumbo- jumbo, a terrorized populace and maybe even some chemical weapons.
Disturbing these already troubled emotional waters is the re-emergence of Irene Adler. Fetchingly played by Rachel McAdams, faithful readers will remember her from “A Study In Scarlet” as the only woman to ever outsmart our hyper- cerebral Sherlock. These days she’s working for an unseen Professor Moriarty, and I can only presume the great pains Ritchie and company take to conceal the villain’s face are because they want to cast a bigger star to play him in the inevitable sequel.
Sherlock Holmes is a bratty, very funny movie. It’s jaunty, quick-witted and, unlike Ritchie’s other pictures, light on its feet. In action movies, brainpower is too often synonymous with weakness, but the script (by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg) works overtime to present intelligence as just another form of badassery, with Holmes often using his encyclopedic knowledge of human anatomy to overcome foes twice his size. Our newfangled Sherlock doesn’t win fights because he’s bigger and brawnier—he wins because he’s smarter. I can get behind that kind of message.
Of course, Robert Downey Jr. is delightful. (When is he not?) He’s so effortlessly charismatic and flip, in some scenes he turns on a dime into aching vulnerability, muttering devastating put-downs to everyone within earshot (Eddie Marsan’s Inspector Lestrade bears the brunt of his sarcasm) before looking upon Law and McAdams with the aching neediness of a wounded puppy. Downey’s Holmes is a tormented genius with emotions too big for the room and a brain twice the size of his head. No wonder he’s wasted most of the time.
Jude Law’s career didn’t quite work out the way we all hoped it would, but he makes a marvelous Dr. Watson. Most treatments of this character lapse into buffoonery, but here he’s sharp as a tack and quick with a blade, always one step behind Holmes and yet two steps ahead of the audience. These guys have the easy, bristling chemistry of a bitchy old married couple, and the biggest lull in Sherlock comes when the screenplay keeps them apart for too long. McAdams and Reilly are just window dressing; the real love story is between Holmes and Watson.
Did I care about Lord Blackwood’s master plan? Not really. Nor did I care about Liam Neeson in Batman Begins , Eric Bana in Star Trek or whoever that guy was in Casino Royale . The great pleasure of Sherlock Holmes is quite like those pictures, the joy of watching old, familiar heroes born again. ■
Neil Barsky’s "Koch" Keeps It Light