Holmes sweet Holmes

Who else but Robert Downey Jr. to personify self-destructive eccentricity?

Dec 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

The purists will hate it. But anyone expecting a faithfully tweedy adaptation of Arthur Canon Doyle's iconic detective simply hasn't been paying attention. The film is directed by swaggering Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch) and produced by Joel Silver (The Matrix) fer chrissakes. These are not men known for dainty, drawing room dramas. And let's be real; Doyle's novels are hardly high literature. They're Victorian pulp, ripe for new-school re-interpretation. Thus Sherlock Holmes has become a Dickensian action hero. Thank god the filmmakers had the good sense to cast Robert Downey Jr. as their impish and impertinent lead. In lesser hands their reinvention would have been embarrassingly tragic. Instead Ritchie and company deliver retro-comic-book bluster that is predictably and boisterously loud but never dim-witted or dull. And with Downey Jr. they've found the perfect person to personify self-destructive eccentricity.

The first half of Holmes is over-plotted but not particularly complex, whipping along with surprising snap, wit, and bounce. We're introduced to the decidedly a disheveled Holmes (Downey Jr.), an arrogant smarty-pants and amateur boxer who's incapable of social niceties and susceptible to mental breakdowns whenever his fidgety genius isn't engaged. His partner is the ever-patient Doctor Watson (a perfectly cast Jude Law), whose impending engagement threatens their codependent bromance. Enter beautiful Irene Adler (a superfluous Rachel McAdams), the only woman to ever steal Holmes' heart and outsmart his big brain. Adler pulls the Victorian gumshoe into a confounding mystery. Creepy Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who was recently hanged for a quartet of occult killings, comes back from the grave to commit yet more murders. Is black magic afoot in England? Will Holmes solve the crime before more people die?

Ritchie's overlong yet swashbuckling second half, unfortunately, answers those questions with conventional plot mechanics and booming action pieces, propelling our hero and his charismatic allies toward a logical but unsatisfying finale. There's political intrigue, numerous explosions, a gargantuan French henchman, and the inevitable plot to bring down Parliament. It'd all be fine if Ritchie ever achieved any momentum. Instead, Sherlock Holmes plays like a series of deliciously appetizing scenes that never add up to a whole meal. I suspect the quartet of cooks tasked with writing the script is to blame. To their credit, however, Holmes' final untangling of the mystery demonstrates that they've played fair with us, providing us with clues and motives we couldn't possibly solve ourselves but that make sense nonetheless.

For all it's flaws, everyone in Sherlock Holmes having such a good time it's hard not to get swept up in its frantic, sardonic fun. Downey and Law have terrific chemistry, and their interactions with the hapless Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) crackle with entertaining verve. Ritchie's direction is predictably overwrought but oddly elegant, delighting in its steampunk view of industrial England, replete with bad hygiene and sooty settings. And finally, the director has found the perfect rationale for his slow-mo affectations, cleverly using it to illustrate Holmes' thought process before putting his plan into action.

Much like J.J. Abrams' recent reboot of Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes brings with it a hip new postmodern sensibility that shows healthy respect for its source material. And while the deerstalker hat and "elementary, Dear Watson" may be missing, there's enough deductive reasoning, theatrical flair and breathless brawn to make audiences long for the next installment. Rumors are circulating that Brad Pitt is being queued up to play Professor Moriarty.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].