by Brett Parker
You can imagine Sherlock Holmes purists being enraged by the latest cinematic incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved hero and perhaps they have good reason to be. Hollywood producers have blown the doors off the character's Britannia formalities and traditions in trying to display him as the latest Blockbuster action hero. The latest Holmes tale is pumped up with CGI-effects, elaborate actions sequences, and movie stars who physically betray the traditional look of the characters. To literary enthusiasts, this truly could be a nightmare.
I'm happy to report that the new Sherlock Holmes is far from being a train wreck and is one of the most thrilling adventure films of the year. Here is a big-budget action vehicle where the effects shots are technically marvelous and the action scenes are dazzlingly creative. And even though the great detective is wildly re-imagined to swim Hollywood waters, a surprising justice is done to the founding ideals of the character and even pushes him to new and brilliant depths. The film brings a clever attention to the Holmes legend, not only creating a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride but an ingenious detective story as well.
The film opens with a more athletic and scrappy Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, JR.) racing through the streets of London. He has the appearance of a shabby bohemian yet the fighting skills of a super ninja. Joining him is his proper-looking sidekick Watson (Jude Law) who is more reserved than Holmes, but also possesses a strong intellect, taste for adventure, and set of fighting techniques. The two are attempting to stop a shadowy villain named Blackwood (Mark Strong) from carrying out a dark arts ritual of murder. Blackwood is a spooky magician who carries out crimes shrouded in haunting spells. After fighting off henchmen and devising a method to disarm him, Holmes captures Blackwood and he is jailed by Scotland Yard. Another case solved by the brilliant Holmes.
Time passes and Holmes discovers there are hardly any elaborate cases left to solve. He spends his days conducting wacky experiments in his messy quarters at 221B Baker Street and wrestling with the fact that Watson plans to leave his detective days behind him to settle down with a good woman named Mary (Kelly Reily). They are called back into action, however, the day when it is revealed that the deceased Blackwood may have risen from his grave and plots to destroy all of England. A far-fetched theory, one Holmes promises to get to the bottom of! By taking on the case, Holmes and Watson get caught up in a breathtaking adventure in which the duo faces off with intimidating henchman, deadly traps, government conspiracies, and an American thief named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) who may not only be part of Blackwood's elaborate plot but may also be the only woman who has ever touched the heart of Sherlock Holmes.
So the new (and considerably improved) Holmes is a master brawler, a heavy boozer, a wacky bohemian, and a quick-thinking man of action. If you were to look into Conan Doyle's original tales, you'll find these traits to not be entirely betraying of Holmes' persona. It makes sense that a man of Holmes' skills and experience would have such an outsized arsenal of talents and quirks. Surely a man of such studied intelligence would have a fine knowledge of self-defense tactics. A man of his grand intellect could surely be hopelessly wrapped in an array of eccentric habits. Director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Rocknrolla) has a gifted eye for colorful eccentrics who inhabit a slapstick cockney underworld of crime. It's both logical and liberating to find Holmes in such a zany criminal landscape, for a great crime solver would have to immerse himself within the criminal community to understand their motives better.
When finding an actor to play the legendary detective, the last actor you'd probably think of is the American Robert Downey, Jr. Yet his colorful tics and breathless musings fit wonderfully within the Holmes persona. Like some of his more memorable performances, Downey makes his Holmes an energetic quirkster who grows weary of the simpletons around him. It seems like only Downey can employ his sharp wit and erratic nature to make his Holmes both time-honoring and refreshingly original at the same time. This is strongly demonstrated in a fascinating sequence where Holmes can't help but analyze a roomful of people and Watson's fiance at a fancy restaurant.
With his height and proper British demeanor, you'd almost expect Jude Law to play Holmes. Well here he is as trusty sidekick Watson, his strong-headed and adventurous poise wildly contradicting the pudgy oaf we've come to expect from this character. Nonetheless, we welcome the performance with open arms. Both Downey and Law have an unlikely and winning chemistry together. One of the script's pleasures is the cheerful acknowledgement of the famous duo's homoerotic tendencies. Downey and Law knowingly bicker like an old married couple, wearing timeless suspicions about the characters right on their sleeves. It makes for a hilarious bromance, maybe even a tad touching.
The film is wall-to-wall with action yet Ritchie labors to keep things visually creative and within the excitement of Holmes' crime solving. A brilliant stroke occurs when we see Holmes intellectually mapping out fighting methods to attack his enemies with. There's a dazzling slow-motion sequence where Holmes tries to dodge a series of deadly explosions. The film's exciting climax treats us to both a dazzling fight sequence atop the under-construction Tower Bridge and Holmes' brilliant summary of the entire case. All of these sequences are tied together by the marvelously Victorian-tinged musical score by Hans Zimmer, a score that truly deserves an Oscar nomination.
For all its creative strokes, Sherlock Holmes is still, essentially, a Hollywood thrill ride. Certain action sequences are prolonged for filler as the plot steams relentlessly towards an obvious sequel set-up. But the film doesn't insult the foundation of Conan Doyle's creation. For the film truly comes alive when it connects strongly and creatively with the traditions of the Sherlock Holmes myth. The original stories are often regarded as gems of simple pleasures, and the same can be said of this film.