Director : Guy Ritchie
Screenplay : Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg (story by Lionel Wigram and Michael Robert Johnson; based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law (Dr. John Watson), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler), Mark Strong (Lord Blackwood), Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade), Robert Maillet (Dredger), Geraldine James (Mrs. Hudson), Kelly Reilly (Mary Morstan), William Houston (Constable Clark), Hans Matheson (Lord Coward), James Fox (Sir Thomas), William Hope (Ambassador Standish), Clive Russell (Captain Tanner)
In playing the eponymous detective in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes reboot, Robert Downey Jr. joins an extensive rank of actors that include such luminaries as Peter O’Toole, John Barrymore, Nicol Williamson, Peter Cushing, Jonathan Pryce, and, of course, the incomparable Basil Rathbone, who more so than any other actor defined the signature role with his deft intelligence, unflappable determination, and refined etiquette. That is the picture most of us have of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary icon, who appeared in four novels and 56 short stories from 1891 to 1927 and subsequently became one of the most--if not the most--frequently portrayed character on screen. Yet, while it is tempting to see Downey’s portrayal and Ritchie’s amped-up aesthetic approach to the material as revisionism for an attention-addled generation, in many ways it is closer in spirit and tone to Doyle’s eccentric character, who is more of a bohemian and self-imposed social outcast than the distinguished, erudite figure to which we are accustomed (and no deerstalker hat, which is never mentioned in a single Holmes story and is instead a contribution by artist Sidney Paget). Traditionalists may still be appalled, but they always are.
The team of screenwriters, which include newcomer Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham (Invictus), and Simon Kinberg (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) working from a screen story concocted by Lionel Wigram and Johnson, keep the original Holmes stories’ Victorian-era setting in London and draw liberally from the Holmes canon, plucking familiar characters from different stories and mixing them into a new stew that relies as heavily on the master detective’s physical prowess as it does his deductive capacities. Granted, Ritchie, a British director known for hyper-violent, hyper-edited comic-criminal fantasies like Snatch (2001), plays up the action elements that were, at best, minor detours in the Holmes stories usually reserved for the climax, and at times it feels like a bit much. Yet, the film manages a clever justification in turning Holmes’ fighting expertise into an intellectual exercise by slowing the violence down and letting us into his head while he works out a carefully and exactly calculated series of actions guaranteed to take down his opponent; while the actual execution is purely physical, thus guaranteeing that we see Holmes as a more primal masculine subject than usual, the violence works in tandem, rather than in opposition to, his intellect.
As always, Holmes is balanced by his partner, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), who is perhaps the most revised character in the film. Although usually portrayed as a bumbling lackey best used for comic relief (particularly as embodied by Nigel Bruce in the Universal film series in the 1940s), here Dr. Watson is a fully competent colleague with his own set of issues. While he is not as brilliant as Holmes, he balances the detective’s less savory eccentricities, which include a rampant ego, a complete lack of recognizable organization, and a sense of independence that cuts him off from virtually all human relationships. Downey and Law have a palpable chemistry, which gives the film’s subplot involving Holmes’ jealousy over Watson’s engagement to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) and his subsequent moving from their flat at 221B Baker Street a sense of genuine emotional involvement (Sherlock Holmes may very well be one of the most intriguing additions to the recent obsession with “bromances”). We can see how and why Holmes needs Watson, but also why he refuses to come out and admit it, a quality that Downey expertly plays as both comically juvenile and sympathy-inducing.
The film’s plot involves a master scheme by the villainous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), whose aspirations are nothing less than taking over most of the industrialized world in the name of Great Britain. In the film’s bum-rush opening sequence, Holmes and Watson stop him in the nick of time from performing a human sacrifice, which illustrates both his depravity and the possibility that he has supernatural aspirations, which seem to be confirmed when he apparently rises from the dead after his execution by hanging and then sets about killing his rivals. Holmes and Watson are set on the case because Scotland Yard, as embodied by the dedicated but always outwitted Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), needs their help. Several subplots eventually come together, including Holmes’ involvement with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a fiery American with whom has previously tangled and lost, which further humanizes the otherwise superhuman sleuth.
There is rarely a dull moment in Sherlock Holmes, as Ritchie drives the story forward with relentless momentum, aided considerably by Hans Zimmer’s unconventional musical score, which sounds like it was banged out on untuned instruments by a drunken Irish pub band; the only time the film slows down is either when Holmes is sifting through evidence and making his infamous deductions (many of which are withheld until the big climax, which takes place on the vertiginous girders of the unfinished Tower Bridge) or when he is making a comical aside, most of which are aimed at Lestrade. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (a favorite of Tim Burton’s) gives the film a familiar desaturated look that emphasizes the grit and grime of Victorian London, and if it at times it too closely resembles a music video, Downey is always on hand to remind us that any film bearing the name of Sherlock Holmes ultimately rises and falls on the strength of the central character, which he embodies with such dexterity that you want to see him do it again.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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