Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, Sherlock Holmes, gets a new coat of paint for the 21st century in this latest interpretation. Just like the current visage of Santa Claus was largely a creation of Coca-Cola, the image of Holmes in a deerstalker hat, tweed cape with a calabash pipe was honed through various film and television adaptations. Those well-worn tropes have been washed away. Instead, filmmakers went back to the source material. Doyle’s original Holmes was depicted as unabashedly arrogant about his immense intellect and was also something of an opium sot. The drug use barely alluded to, but many of the great detective’s eccentricities are on full display.
This iteration of Holmes is perfectly played by Robert Downey, Jr. Even at a younger age, it’s hard to imagine Downey headlining a big-budget action franchise, but you can’t picture either Sherlock Holmes or Iron Man without him. Downey exceeds as the egotistical Holmes whose deductive skills and orderly mind are no comparison to his slovenly living habits. Holmes’ acumen as a martial artist and bare-knuckle boxer are briefly mentioned in a pair of Doyle’s stories, but they take the forefront here. Holmes can not only break down a person’s entire life by a mere glance, he can break someone down physically the same way. Holmes’s sidekick, Dr. Watson, is equally reimagined from the overweight bumbler to friggin’ Jude Law. He’s a man of action on equal footing with his partner.
Holmes and Watson’s relationship is soured when the latter moves out of their Baker Street townhouse to wed his fiancée Mary Morstan. Holmes can’t abide that Watson would wish for company other than himself. However, bigger happenings are afoot when the two apprehend Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) for the ritualistic murders of several young women. After being hanged and pronounced dead by Watson, Blackwood returns from the grave and confounds his adversary with his seemingly supernatural powers. In addition, Holmes is befuddled by the return of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a notorious thief and one of the very few to outwit Holmes. If Holmes and Watson are Batman and Robin, then Adler is their Catwoman.
For a mystery-laden potboiler, the last person you’d want to hire as director would be Guy Ritchie. As a filmmaker, he’s all style and no substance. As a writer, he’s a one-trick pony. Ritchie debuted with the gangster farce Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels then repeated the same formula in his sophomore effort Snatch. After striking out with the much-maligned Swept Away (starring then-wife Madonna), Ritchie returned to the ever-diminishing well with Revolver and RocknRolla. No, Ritchie couldn’t direct a Victorian-era drama to save his life, but he can direct a slick modernized blockbuster. Ritchie’s trademark trickery (fast-forwards, rewinds, slow motion, quick cuts) work as a way into the labyrinthine mind of our hero. This is also the best looking film of Ritchie’s career thanks to Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It, Interview with the Vampire).
The story itself isn’t as clever as it makes out to be, but the lead actors are good enough to make you buy into it all without question. Downey and Law play off each other incredibly well and Mark Strong always adds a level of credibility to whatever film that’s lucky to have him. Rachel McAdams, unfortunately, isn’t up to the task of keeping pace with her castmates. She’s good in contemporary roles (Mean Girls, State of Play), but sticks out like a sore thumb in a period piece.
Despite, a few shortcomings, Sherlock Holmes is one of the better Hollywood offerings of 2009. It’s a fun popcorn movie and the beginnings of a promising franchise.