The badass of Baker Street
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
(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.