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“Elementary, my dear Watson.”
If you just became indignant about the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote that famous line, you will likely not enjoy Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, because you will never get past the overhaul of the famous detective (Robert Downey Jr.) as an action star who jumps out of windows, wins fight club matches, defies death to rescue damsels in distress, and is even willing to practice a little dark magic if the case requires it. For that matter, Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is willing to do pretty much all of the above as well.
The first ten minutes of the film will determine whether you can survive the next two hours, as Holmes and Watson swoop in to stop a satanic cult leader from sacrificing a beautiful woman writhing on an altar. The shocked and barely competent London police take Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) into custody, and it looks like Holmes has another notch in his crime-solving belt. But when Blackwood returns from the grave, either Watson’s medical skills are in question – the good doctor confirmed Blackwood’s death – or the game is afoot. Holmes convinces Watson to put mayhem over matrimony and join in the pursuit.
Credit must be given to Ritchie and his direction for making Sherlock Holmes so enjoyable for such a drastic re-imagining. True to Ritchie’s style, there are lots of elements that will appeal to the immature side of men: bloody fights, big explosions, and dead bodies that keep piling up. But Ritchie also imbues bleak, Victorian London with a charming appeal in the company of his eccentric Holmes. Shots of the iconic Tower Bridge under construction and an underground sewer chase are well utilized, and a boat in dry dock makes for a particularly menacing setting for a gunfight. It’s doubtful every detail is true to the period, but Ritchie concocts a London perfect for dark doings and sleuthing.
As for Downey, his Holmes is a little bit Jason Bourne and a little bit Jessica Fletcher: you wouldn’t want to anger him, and someone is always dying when he’s around. And he’s designed to be both a lover and fighter. Downey manages a unique take on the character by balancing the wickedly smart detective with an emotionally adolescent man-child. He’s almost petulant about Watson’s impending nuptials because he doesn’t want to lose his playmate, but when fighting to the death he’s uber-logical and in complete emotional control. Don’t, however, expect to see any mention of Holmes’ predilection for cocaine or morphine – it has been scrubbed clean in the update.
Law is more true to the Doyle’s original concept of Watson — he’s former military who can handle himself in a fight, has a slight predilection for gambling, and a medical background invaluable for detection. Law and Downey have just the right amount of chemistry – in fact, enough to eclipse the female characters and cause some to wonder whether the residents of 221B Baker Street are really just roommates. Their first-rate bromance brings a touch of friendship and love to an otherwise action-filled flick.
Rachel McAdams plays femme fatale Irene Adler, who has a past with Holmes and a hold on his heart. While she also holds her own with the physical action, McAdams never really finds her place in the film and gives the weakest performance of the group.
Hidden somewhere beneath the fights and explosions, there is an actual mystery to solve: has Lord Blackwood returned from the grave, and who is the mysterious man in black stalking Holmes? Between the corpses and secret societies, the plot is at times as convoluted as a Dan Brown book, but the film does its best to keep everyone up to speed. Ultimately, it’s your typical denouement – only Holmes is able to piece together the disparate clues to reach a solution – so you might as well sit back and enjoy the action.
In the final moments, one wonders if a sequel is in the works. As Holmes might say, ”When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I think even Watson could solve that one.