A buff detective who takes off his shirt and indulges in bare-knuckle fighting is not the description that springs to mind when you think of Sherlock Holmes. Then again, Guy Ritchie is not your first choice when it comes to picking a director for the newest version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's much-loved creation. Producer Joel Silver calls Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes an attempt to do “James Bond in 1891” and he isn't far from wrong.
While purists scream for blood — or rather, for less blood and a return to the conventional version topped with deerstalker hat — the fact is that no other fictional detective has seen this many celluloid variations of himself. It's not easy to find something fresh to say about him — and in that spirit, it's fun to watch Ritchie's all-new Holmes who engages in exuberant fisticuffs, and carefully plans fights in slo-mo in his brain before exploding into actual furious action.
Yet, the update could have been a recipe for disaster but for an inspired piece of casting: Robert Downey Jr. The actor puts his sardonic screen presence to excellent use as a Holmes who is intelligent and energetic when the game is afoot, but moodily dyspeptic when he isn't actually sleuthing.
Dr. Watson, as well, is reinvented by a mustachioed Jude Law. It's not as flashy an update as the “new” Holmes, but Watson is no longer the bumbling sidekick. Law brings a relaxed, humorous edge to his character, and the two men enjoy great onscreen chemistry. They make an amusing “odd couple” whose partnership is threatened because the good doctor is on the verge of getting engaged.
The Very Bad Villain of the piece is the powerful Lord Blackwood — played by scene-stealer Mark Strong — who indulges in some evil-looking black magic. The film opens with Blackwood caught red-handed by Holmes, Watson and Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan). He is hung for his crimes, but not before intoning with ghoulish relish: “Death is only the beginning”.
Supernatural goings-on ensue and it seems as though Blackwood has returned from the grave. Holmes is forced to put a halt to playing the violin and treating his beleaguered doggie as a guinea pig; he must bestir himself from 221B Baker Street, as there is a mystery to be solved. Adding glamour — and gorgeous period dresses — to the plot is the beautiful thief Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a character from the original Holmesian universe.
But overall, the film is not true to the spirit of the original Holmes, is very long, and does take on too many trappings of the modern thriller, such as action-packed chases. Yet, you leave the theatre feeling thoroughly satisfied.
It's a puzzle that Holmes might have solved by pointing out how the running, fighting and mystery-solving is done by a charismatic bunch of actors led by the talented Mr. Downey; how it is done with style and wit; and how it all takes place within such a stylishly recreated Victorian London of artistic grime and cobbled streets. “Excellent,” you might have said appreciatively, as understanding dawned. “Elementary,” he may have replied.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Robert Downey, Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong
Storyline: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brainy detective is updated into an action-hero version and asked to solve deadly crimes with supernatural overtones.
Bottomline: The game is afoot — and it's a jolly entertaining one.