Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Kelly Reilly, Hans Matheson
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material.
Guy Ritchie’s new “Sherlock Holmes” is a strange blend of Hollywood action movie and old-school, canon-faithful Holmes. There are plenty of shoutouts to fans of the original canon (Watson limps! Holmes shoots “VR” into the wall of his room!) but also major departures for the sake of including action movie tropes (Big explosions! Holmes has a love interest!). Provided canon fans can check their purist inclinations at the door, they should enjoy this as much as the action movie crowd will.
The film opens with Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.), Watson (Jude Law), and Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) foiling a Satanic ritual by the improbably-named Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Blackwood goes to the gallows and then to the grave, but soon there is word of him rising from his shattered tomb and setting out to do all sorts of dastardly things. Naturally, the great detective is on the case.
Downey is, on the surface, a strange choice to play Holmes. He has entirely the wrong face and body type for the famously aquiline and thin detective. His spirit, however, is perfect. Holmes is eccentric, egotistical, obsessive, manipulative, brilliant, and an addict. After Downey’s fantastic turn as Tony Stark in “Iron Man” it seems like risking typecasting to play Holmes, but moviegoers should be grateful. Downey is the ultimate action-movie Holmes.
Lord Blackwood is grand villain. Strong is a scene-stealer and Ritchie wisely doesn’t over-use him, allowing him (like many of the great Holmes villains) to act behind the scenes for much of the story. Strong makes him a top-notch manipulator and showman, and it’s hard to take your eyes off him in the scenes he does have as he goes about arranging a plan to take over the country through nefarious means.
Meanwhile, in another canon shoutout, Watson is preparing to move out of his shared rooms with Holmes and marry Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). Holmes is displeased, and some of the film’s best moments come out of his attempts to draw Watson back into sleuthing and away from his soon-to-be-fiancee. Law plays Watson much closer to the canonical character than some versions, which is thoroughly enjoyable. This Watson is clearly a veteran and able to lay the smack down with the best of them. Watson is often portrayed as bumbling and oafish, which is thoroughly unfair to him. Law gives him the bravery, practicality, and often-tried loyalty to his friend that resonates through the source material.
Holmes’ and Watson’s investigation is complicated by the arrival of Irene Adler (Rachal McAdams), the only person ever to outwit the great detective. She’s both an antihero in the story and a love interest for Holmes, which is one of the biggest departures from canon given that the canonical Holmes showed no romantic interest in anyone (he was, as they say, married to his job). Still, McAdams does a reasonable job of being believable as a Victorian action heroine and an excellent job of being as devious as Holmes is.
Ultimately, “Sherlock Holmes” is an updating of the classic tales. They were Victorian pulp, meant to excite and entertain; this new adaptation is modern pulp — a Hollywood action movie — and was clearly made by people who know and love the original stories. There are plenty of things here for purists to complain about, but in an era of adaptations, this one is surprisingly true to the spirit of its source material. It’s a rollicking good time and thoroughly enjoyable for those able to take the canon material as bonuses rather than count the deviations from canon as serious negatives. For folks who aren’t familiar with the Holmes stories and who love action flicks, this could easily serve as an introduction to the wonderful world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.