Andy Bockelman: Appeal of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ is elementary
January 4, 2010
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Running time: 134 minutes
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Rachel McAdams
Now playing at the West Theater.
Before there were Batman and Robin, Crockett and Tubbs or most any other crime-fighting duo, there was a pair of investigators that set the template for detective stories henceforth. But the heroes of "Sherlock Holmes" are a tad different by today's standards.
Never was there a team-up like Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. John Watson (Jude Law). The two keep the criminal world of 1890s London at bay with keen investigation skills and deductive reasoning.
But their partnership is in its final days, with Watson ready to move on with his life and settle down with his fiancée (Kelly Reilly). But Holmes' reaction to his chum's decision is overshadowed by a greater threat.
The recently hanged Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), imprisoned for murders involving the practice of black magic, is terrorizing London from beyond the grave. As Blackwood was the last case he completed with Watson, Holmes is compelled to solve the mystery, though the good doctor is less than enthused.
But the more they look into the supernatural circumstances surrounding Blackwood's death and rebirth, the more apparent it is that something even more diabolical is at hand.
Downey throws himself into his role as the world's greatest sleuth. And this isn't the stuffy Basil Rathbone construction of Holmes, either. The actor downplays the slightly eccentric gentleman definition of the character and turns him into a faintly deranged but brilliant rough and tumble miscreant with infallible sensory skills.
All his idiosyncrasies may aggravate the more conservative Watson, but he's by no means perfect. Law also modulates his behavior as prominent physician Watson, most notably upping his outward aggression. He has no reservations in punching his partner in the face when he's asking for it.
Strong is appropriately nefarious as the noncanonical villain Blackwood, whose dealings with ritual sacrifice and alchemy may not be as grandiose as they first appear, but don't worry, there's still a dastardly plot in play. And Blackwood isn't the half of it, as a greater threat looms in the darkness.
Rachel McAdams is the weak link in the cast as Holmes' former flame, Irene Adler, an international thief who has eluded his capture before. McAdams can't be blamed, though, since Adler primarily functions as an intermediary between Holmes and an unknown factor.
More on that in later movies.
Oh yes, there will be a sequel.
That much is obvious not just because of the movie's open conclusion but because of the title detective's literary roots, which always have been entrenched in keeping fans wanting more with multiple escapades. The collection of Holmes stories — either by original author Doyle or those who have taken up the mantle in later years — are almost a library unto themselves and continuing the chronology on film is more than just a Hollywood money-maker.
The question is if director Guy Ritchie's take on the detective is worth carrying on.
And it most assuredly is.
Ritchie's London is a grimy place, full of back alley rubbish and shifty urchins, a successful transposition of his usual films, like "Snatch" or "RocknRolla." And Downey's Holmes fights right into this gutter backwash whether as a bare-knuckle boxer in his leisure time or while on the case, incognito.
But amid this sludge emerges a prevailing intellectualism that never leaves the story's top twosome even when the rest of the story and characters become all too predictable.
The newest "Sherlock Holmes" is a stretch because Ritchie is clearly concerned about staying true to his fan base, but it's still a pretty cerebral action movie for all its conventions. After all, merely sticking Downey in a deerstalker cap and placing a magnifying glass in his palm would only be a pathetic attempt to mimic the classic version.
Perhaps we didn't need to see him handcuffed to a hotel bed while naked, but that's another matter.