by Tony Dayoub
Interestingly, last night (24 hours after seeing Avatar) I had a great time watching Guy Ritchie (Snatch) work Sherlock Holmes over with his particular brand of Britstosterone-fueled filmmaking. In what seems to be the emerging pattern among reboots these days, Ritchie drops in on Holmes (Robert Downey) somewhat early in his career, before he has met the shadowy figure in the fringes of the movie who will ultimately become his archenemy. And rather than modify Holmes and sidekick Watson (Jude Law) to fit into his style of protagonists, Ritchie is able to stay somewhat faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle's mythos, peppering the film with details from his novels while melding his sensibility into a London that is possibly one of the most historically accurate to ever serve as a backdrop for a cinematic Holmes adventure.
Yes, it's a grungier Holmes than we're used to seeing, one that could easily fit into the lineup with any of the other underworld characters from Ritchie's filmography yet still true to Doyle's depiction of the character. Downey has just the right flair for theatricality to embody the Holmes we're familiar with. The deductive reasoning, the dry wit, the lightning fast reflexes both mental and otherwise, are faithfully preserved. The one thing Downey brings to the mix which may shock some who only know the character from the movies is a physicality that has often been referred to in the novels. Holmes could have been a prize-fighter according to Doyle's novels, and Downey, looking leaner and sleeker than he ever has before (an allusion to Holmes' unspoken—at least in this movie—drug addiction?) brings the attitude of a bare-knuckle brawler and the grace and agility of a martial artist into the film's multitude of action scenes. This, in fact, is an action movie, but it will probably be one of the smartest and most historically accurate ones you'll see for a long time.
If there are any drawbacks they lie in the predictability of what is basically a traditional detective story/action-adventure tale. There's seldom any question that Holmes will save the day, that our heroes' lives are in danger, or that we won't figure out the villain, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), and his agenda. And Rachel McAdams is sorely miscast as the one woman Holmes has ever found formidable. She seems like a young schoolgirl next to these men. But Ritchie makes up for this by pumping some adrenaline into the story—the film moves like a juggernaut, quick, muscular and unstoppable—and giving the movie a real sense of place and time that make every scene worth exploring if only for the simple pleasure of soaking in the ambience. Ritchie also gets points for avoiding the expository origin story that often plagues reboots of this nature. Instead he introduces us to Holmes and Watson—virtual equals in the way their strengths complement each other—in what seems like mid-career.
The most interesting performance is Law's as Holmes' faithful aide, Dr. Watson. Often presented as somewhat of a bumbler in other movies (particularly when played by Nigel Bruce in the forties), Law imbues Watson with dignity and self-respect, reminding you always that this man's intellectual stature must be of some note in order to even keep up with the arrogant genius that is Holmes. Details about Watson usually reserved solely for Doyle's stories come to the forefront in Ritchie's film: his distinguished military service in Afghanistan; his medical acumen; and his self-deprecating habit of acknowledging his limitations in the presence of his intellectually superior friend. There's even a subplot that touches on the closeness of the two men, with Holmes experiencing a bit of jealousy at the thought of Watson's impending marriage to a governess (a wonderful excuse to pass some time with the underrated Kelly Reilly).
Sherlock Holmes is hardly as ambitious as Cameron's Avatar,a film that may overshadow its opening at the box office this weekend. But Holmes succeeds on its own merits in some ways Avatar fails to. It gives us a fresh take on a favorite literary character, which in years to come, may give this film some stronger footing than its box office rival.
Sherlock Holmes opens in theaters on Christmas Day.