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Saturday, Dec. 26, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Robert Downey’s Great Detective

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With carriages thundering over the cobblestones of Victorian London’s gas-lit streets, a dark backdrop of hard-edged computer generated surfaces, Sherlock Holmes is closer, visually, to Dark Knight than The Hound of the Baskervilles. Unlikely director Guy Ritchie, with the help of Robert Downey Jr. (Holmes) and Jude Law (Dr. Watson), is determined to interpret Arthur Conan Doyle’s deathless detective for the 21st century.

To unhappy purists, it must be said that every generation gets the Sherlock Holmes it wants. During World War II, Basil Rathbone was fast-forwarded into the present to battle against the Nazis. In the 1970s and ‘80s Conan Doyle’s allusions to the detective’s cocaine use emerged from the shadows. In the new film, Downey plays Holmes for an eccentric superhero, his acute powers of observation applied to unmatchable skills in the martial arts. Of course, in the Conan Doyle stories, Holmes did more than think, smoke a pipe and saw away at his violin. He was occasionally forced to fight. But in Sherlock Holmes, the fighting threatens to overwhelm the pleasure of Holmes’ cerebral exercises as he beats down platoons of goons with well-aimed kicks and jabs. Downey’s Holmes is violent and a bit deranged as well as powerfully intelligent.

The literary Holmes might be appalled that in this movie, spectacle trumps logic whenever they meet. Would the grandmaster of a secret society ignite a dissident member and send him hurtling like a torch through a window to the street below, revealing their hiding place? Cartoonish violence and CGI mayhem rule the day, albeit skillfully edited with edge-of-the-seat pacing.

The story wasn’t written by Conan Doyle but is a pastiche with many elements drawn directly from his work, including Holmes’ love of disguises and horror of mental “stagnation.” It begins with the capture of an aristocratic serial killer, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), whose murders are human sacrifices on behalf of an underground ring of occultists. Although hung for his crimes, Blackwood appears unwilling to stay dead and continues to stalk London. Like some real-life occultists of the era, he seeks a historic world transformation under a new order. For him, the death of “insignificant” people is the means to an end. Can Holmes unravel the plot before the plot unravels society? And of what use are his powers of deduction (and his karate prowess) against a man who conquered death?

Downey elevates the movie above its lurid, pulpy screenplay. Returning the character to his bohemian roots in Conan Doyle’s imagination, Downey’s Holmes is disheveled yet dashing. His eyes are dark pools of sadness, flashing with indignant, piercing intelligence at the fools around him. Often moody and sullen, and sharp as a fencing master in thrusting repartee, Downey invests Holmes with a compelling presence. Likeable as Watson, Law isn’t the bumbler portrayed by Nigel Bruce in the classic 1930s-‘40s movies but a reasonable man increasingly put-off by his friend’s dangerously bizarre behavior. Ferret-faced Eddie Marsan (excellent as the driving instructor in Happy-Go-Lucky) is engaging as Inspector Lestrade and Rachel McAdams is sufficiently fetching as Irene Adler, a master criminal-kickboxer-love interest grafted onto the story largely for the sake of boosting the female demographic. Frankly, the presence of Downey would have been enough to insure interest from all genders. The other supporting characters are confined to one dimension.

Working with Downey and Law, a better team of screenwriters could have been responsible for a great Holmes film. As it is, Sherlock Holmes is an exciting chase through the sooty, filthy streets of Victorian London and a series of thrilling cliffhangers. Here’s hoping the sequel will be as smart as the lead character and the actor who plays him—assuming Downey will find time in between making Iron Man movies.