Just think of Sherlock Holmes and anyone can tell you what he looks like. Or, at least what he has been portrayed as in popular iconography. The deerstalker cap. The curved pipe. Clean shaven. Tidy. This man, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the novel A Study in Scarlet, is the most portrayed character in film, television, and literature. From William Gillette’s first portrayal as Holmes on stage to Basil Rathbone’s cunning version, to Jeremy Brett’s more accurate portrayal, he is a legend. And what does Guy Ritchie do to the character? Bring him back to his roots, but wave away the “boring” aspect of the character. The detective appeared in 4 novels and 56 short stories, who does Ritchie think he is making Holmes an action hero?
Well, the director of Rocknrolla and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels “goes back to the original text”. What does that actually mean? One would think that it would be a more prudent adaptation, similar to something one might see on Masterpiece Mystery. No, what they mean is taking elements from the character and greatly exaggerating them so they play a bigger part in the overall story. Holmes was a boxer. See Holmes kick butt in a pub boxing. Holmes was proficient in martial arts. See Holmes kick rogue butt. Isn’t that bothersome for purist viewers? Not if you try to forget the iconography. Don’t think about it and you’ll be fine.
Robert Downey Jr. (Winner Best Actor – Comedy or Musical, Sherlock Holmes) actually does an excellent job updating the character. He keeps his movements and articulation true to the character, although, Sherlockians might note that this version of the character is…a mess. Unlike our OCD hero, who inspired the likes of Agatha Christie’s own famed sleuth Hercule Poirot and USA Network’s stand by private detective Monk (Emmy-winner Tony Shaloub), he is messy./ He is unclean. He leaves his quarters filthy. But Downey Jr. has so much great wit with the character. You can see he actually had fun making the movie, and he doesn’t go overboard.
Jude Law plays the faithful Dr. Watson. In most of the previous adaptations, Watson is a bumbling fool. In the original stories, he was a faithful and very intelligent physician, which was seen in the UK Holmes series with Brett and David Burke, who was later replaced by Edward Hardwicke. Law would not be my first pick to play Watson, only because Watson is significantly older, in his mid-forties to early fifties throughout the TV series and the stories. But actually, along with Downey Jr., the repartee between the two is amusing and witty, always harking back to the original duo.
Well, I must admit that the plot is silly. Very silly. It feels a lot like a Dan Brown book. Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) is a member of a very Freemason-ish cult/society. Holmes catches him in the beginning of the film and the police, including Inspector Lestrade, convict him of murder. The man is hanged and, OH NO!, he comes back from the dead only to commit more murders. The conspiracy theory aspect isn’t all that interesting, but what is is its attention to detail and the flashbacks and camera pans showing the evidence. It feels like an episode of CSI: London 1896. (Funnily enough, an episode from season five of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was entitled “Who Shot Sherlock?” and involved the murder of the leader of a small Sherlockian society.)
Rachel McAdams, God bless her, plays Holmes’ love interest of sorts. She plays the mysterious and elusive Irene Adler. I was absolutely delighted to see Adler in the movie, seeing as she is one of the most important characters in the canon, even though she only appeared once in the series (“A Scandal in Bohemia”, collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). She is one of the only characters, and surely the only woman to ever outwit Sherlock Holmes. And this is in her favor throughout the film, as the femme fatale is given a back story as a thief and criminal. She smolders as Adler and you can plainly see that Holmes is mitten for her.
The action throughout the film is quite a lot of fun, and it actually works quite well. The methodical man he is, Holmes narrates his actions on how he will subdue his enemy, which makes perfect sense. He goes through every way he can take down he adversary, and it is simply fascinating. This would probably get annoying after a while, so thankfully, this only happens with a few of the first fights, mainly as an introduction to who Holmes is and how his mind works. Otherwise, the action is exciting and fast paced and very enjoyable.
One mustn’t forget the stories completely to enjoy the story. If you remember some of the details of the original series, you will be very pleased to find many, many allusions. While on the street, Holmes actually quotes verbatim from “A Scandal in Bohemia”: Never theorize before you have data. Invariably, you end up twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. (Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, 16) Not to mention the appearance of Holmes’ arch enemy. But I shall not spoil that.
Hans Zimmer, who so brilliantly scored The Dark Knight, returns with another suitable score. The accompaniment was made up of a banjo, a broken piano, and a squeaky violin. Fits the period and the style of the film, and gives a hint of “there’s something more to this, let’s take a closer look”.
The film is a wonderful and fun time and nothing to really think about. It’s a smarter, funnier version of a summer blockbuster. And I would say classier. I mean, it is Holmes. Downey Jr. charms as the legendary sleuth, Law has fun as Watson, and McAdams burns up the screen as the sexy femme fatale Irene Adler. “The game is afoot!”