The filmmakers have essentially gone back to the future with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his partner Dr. John Watson (Jude Law). I am not Holmes scholar, but I have a general familiarity with the character, and I can tell you that what the-powers-that-be have done is consult the source material, Doyle’s original stories, and picked up on several background elements – such as Watson’s service in Afghanistan and Holmes’ faculty for self-defense) and brought them to the forefront. Thus we get a Holmes who can crack skulls as well as he thinks with his own, and a fit, dashing Watson who conceals a sword in his cane. TPTB have likewise stripped away a lot of the barnacles that have attached themselves to the property. Gone is the deerstalker cap (popularized in stage and screen adaptations but never mentioned by Doyle) and overt cocaine addiction (replaced by a vaguely hinted-at taste for wild living; perhaps alcohol). Downey’s Holmes is much more of high-functioning party animal than a deep-thinking hermit; he feels more like Batman or even (wink, wink) Iron Man. However, that true Holmesian hallmark, deductive reasoning (which is actually inductive, but let’s not get into that) combined with an amazingly keen eye for detail, continues to figure prominently. And while this Holmes is a bare-chested brawler, he does puzzle things out before acting out. One recurring storytelling device allows us to enter Holmes’ mind as he plans out a detailed series of physical moves, and then executes them to perfection – presumably illustrating his mind-over-matter philosophy. In short, all the elements that should be in a good Sherlock Holmes movie are there; you just have to pay attention. And it all paves the way for chases, fisticuffs, gunplay, not-quite-damsels-in-distress, quippy lines and climactic battles with the fate of all England hanging in the balance. In short, it’s a summer blockbuster wrapped up with a pretty Christmas bow.
The movie hits the ground running, joining our characters already in hot on the trail of one Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a practitioner of black magic most foul. After being captured by Holmes and Watson, he appears to rise from the dead after his execution and set about executing a master plan of his own. Holmes and Watson are drawn into the case in a rather leisurely manner by Irene Adler, from New Jersey, who is suggested to be Holmes’ inamorata, one “adversary” who has bested him in the past. As Holmes and Watson track their adversaries, we see them try to balance their peculiar personal relationship, as Watson is moving out of their shared flat to marry Mary.
Rachel McAdams (Red Eye) portrays con artist Irene as a thoroughly anachronistic 21st-century woman who wants/needs the help of no man – even the great Sherlock Holmes. But she is working for…someone else, and does not have much choice in the matter. Strong’s sinister Blackwood is another original creation, one who is sadly underwritten for a villain in a blockbuster. Strong gets barely any screen time, but uses it to be as glowering as he can. Blackwood is often upstaged by his various underlings and even henchmen. In fact, the baddie who makes the biggest impression (literally) is Robert Maillet as Dredger, an actual incredible hulk. One wonders if Moriarty was held back because the villain part is so tiny?
Director Guy Ritchie seems well-suited to the material, as he has demonstrated a keen sympathy for the seedy criminal element in such smaller yet lively pictures as Rock ‘n Rolla and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It is his grittiness that serves him well in depicting a grimy Victorian London teeming with filth both physical and human.
Anway, now that this movie has done the heavy lifting of introducing the character, establishing his relationships and setting up his world, future installments of this franchise can jump right into the stories. From here on, the game will be afoot!