The badass of Baker Street

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Sher­lock Holmes, Vic­to­rian action-ad­ven­ture, rated PG-13, Re­gal Sta­dium 14, 3 chiles

At first look, the big­gest mys­tery about Guy Ritchie’s Sher­lock Holmes is why he both­ered to call it Sher­lock Holmes. As reimag­ined by the di­rec­tor and a tri­umvi­rate of screen­writ­ers and as played by Robert Downey Jr., this Holmes has traded arm­chair ra­ti­o­ci­na­tion for a vig­or­ous phys­i­cal­ity that puts one more in mind of Jackie Chan than of Arthur Co­nan Doyle’s clas­sic 19th-cen­tury Lon­don de­tec­tive. This is mens sana in cor­pore sano taken to the limit.

Does the ven­er­a­ble sleuth of 221B Baker Street have enough con­tem­po­rary cur­rency to war­rant such a mus­cu­lar makeover? On a sports-ra­dio talk show re­cently, I heard the host heap con­temp­tu­ous dis­dain upon the no­tion of a movie about Sher­lock Holmes and ridicule the idea that any red-blooded Amer­i­can male would desert the foot­ball couch to buy a ticket to see the Bri­tish de­tec­tive.

This, of course, is not your fa­ther’s (or grand­fa­ther’s, or great­grand­fa­ther’s) Sher­lock Holmes. But then, our im­age of Sher­lock Holmes was largely formed by the clas­sic late ’ 30s and ’40s movies star­ring Basil Rath­bone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Wat­son (and they in turn were in­flu­enced by ac­tor/play­wright William Gil­lette’s hugely pop­u­lar stage ver­sion). As iconic as those im­ages are, they aren’t the whole Holmes story. The char­ac­ter as de­vel­oped in the Doyle sto­ries is com­plex and pleas­ingly con­tra­dic­tory, and there is no ques­tion that Ritchie and his writ­ers drank deeply from the well of the orig­i­nal.

It’s hard to pic­ture Basil Rath­bone stripped to the waist and giv­ing as good as he gets in a bare-knuckle box­ing brawl, as Downey does so mem­o­rably in Ritchie’s movie. But the orig­i­nal Holmes was a pugilist of no mean skills. In The Sign of the Four

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(1890), Doyle’s sec­ond Holmes novel, the great sleuth rem­i­nisces with a prize fighter about three rounds they fought at a ben­e­fit, and the boxer re­mem­bers Holmes as a skilled op­po­nent with tremendous po­ten­tial.

So per­haps it’s best to put aside our pre­con­cep­tions of Holmes, if we have them, and just take this in­car­na­tion for who he is. Downey, shed­ding the fa­mil­iar deer­stalker cap and cape (pop­u­lar­ized by Gil­lette) for a dash­ing black slouch hat, gives us a Holmes who can an­a­lyze a clue and buckle a swash with the best of them. And his faith­ful com­pan­ion, room­mate, and amanu­en­sis Dr. Wat­son has mor­phed in the hands of Jude Law from a plucky, plod­ding, earnest med­i­cal prac­ti­tioner into a wise­crack­ing, two-fisted man of action. Holmes andWat­son have a buddy re­la­tion­ship that is never quite ho­mo­erotic, al­though Holmes clearly re­sents the in­tru­sion of a love in­ter­est (Kelly Reilly asWat­son’s in­tended, Mary Morstan) com­ing be­tween him and his bo­som pal.

The story be­gins with a crack­ling high-ten­sion se­quence in which Holmes andWat­son foil a satanic rite by the movie’s vil­lain, Lord Black­wood (played with ir­re­sistible malev­o­lence by Ritchie vet­eran Mark Strong, who’s also scar­ing audiences this sea­son as the nasty Sir John Con­roy in The Young Vic­to­ria). In this open­ing we get a spe­cial glimpse into a pe­cu­liar quirk of Holmes’ bril­liant men­tal pow­ers: he is able to en­vi­sion in ad­vance an en­tire se­quence of blows he will de­liver to an op­po­nent, a kind of slo-mo in­stant pre-play, which en­ables us then to fol­low the light­ning-fast com­bi­na­tions that en­sue. He will show­case this skill once more a few scenes later, and then, wary of cheap­en­ing it with rep­e­ti­tion, put it away for the rest of the movie.

Black­wood is ap­pre­hended, tried, and sen­tenced to death by hang­ing. But, as he omi­nously de­clares on his way to the gal­lows, “Death is only the beginning.” There’s a lot of movie to go at that point, and many twists, turns, and phys­i­cal and men­tal ex­ploits yet to be per­formed.

A good thing, too. Holmes is not good at idle­ness. Left in the lull of in­ac­tiv­ity be­tween the ex­e­cu­tion of Black­wood and the story’s next de­vel­op­ments, the sleuth de­scends into a slough of de­spond, a man­icde­pres­sive funk that sees him looking di­sheveled and half-crazed as he dips into all sorts of chem­i­cal de­prav­ity and an­ti­so­cial be­hav­ior. Holmes is a man who needs con­stant chal­lenge to keep pace with the warp-speed work­ings of his for­mi­da­ble in­tel­lect.

Downey is the per­fect ac­tor to take us through the labyrinth of Holmes’ tur­bu­lent psy­che. He blends in­sou­ciance with in­san­ity to give us an action hero with fists of fury and a brain the size of a su­per-col­lider. He has phys­i­cal grace, wit, a chis­eled torso, and eyes ca­pa­ble of sad­ness and long­ing as well as star­tling com­pre­hen­sion. He’s well matched by Law, who gives us aWat­son who is no comic foil for his part­ner in crime­solv­ing but a clever, ca­pa­ble fel­low who could no doubt wrap up a case or two on his own.

The weak­est link, and it’s not a glar­ing one, is Rachel McA­dams as Irene Adler, the Amer­i­can ad­ven­turess who once out­smarted Holmes and re­turns to haunt him with the dis­tract­ing whiff of ro­mance. It’s not an ac­tive or acted-upon ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ment, but it’s there in the Lon­don fog, near enough to be trou­ble­some but never close enough for prac­ti­cal pur­poses. McA­dams doesn’t have enough meat on her role, and she never seems to quite pen­e­trate the same cen­tury as the oth­ers.

The look of the pic­ture, with its CGI-en­hanced turn-of-the-cen­tury Lon­don, is spec­tac­u­lar. And de­spite a few lag­gard mo­ments of slow go­ing, Ritchie has pulled off an en­ter­tain­ing coup in giv­ing us a Holmes for the 21st cen­tury by dig­ging back to the 19th cen­tury orig­i­nal and adding a few bells and whis­tles. Like his hero, he hasn’t set­tled for the ob­vi­ous. And has he left the door open for a se­quel?

Ele­men­tary, my dearWat­son.

Lock, stock, and two slug­ging sleuths: Jude Law, left, and Robert Downey Jr.

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