Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes may have some difficulty recognizing their favorite sleuth in Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes,” which is now available on DVD. The director and screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham maintain the general form of the classic detective story, as well as the characters and dry wit of the original. But they have taken considerable liberties with their source, causing a great spillage of critical ink amongst people who, I dare say, don’t give a rip about authenticity.
The greatest pleasure in the film has to be Robert Downey, Jr.’s, portrayal of Holmes and his verbal duels with Watson, played by Jude Law. The good doctor is about to leave the cluttered bachelor flat they share on Baker Street, engaged as he is to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). Holmes’ attempts to dissuade him—involving insult, disguise, and outright lies-- make for some of the movie’s best moments.
However, what finally draws Watson back to his buddy (and this is, at heart, a buddy flick) is a new case. This time around the villain is one Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a sorcerer who combines the traits of Jesus and Hitler. Captured in the midst of a ritual slaying at the story’s opening, the arch fiend is hanged by the neck until pronounced dead by Watson, though he first demands a conversation with Holmes. He promises that three more people will die and that he and Holmes will embark on a journey that will “twist the very fabric of nature.” When he evidently escapes from the tomb, the game’s afoot, with the fate of England at stake: there’s even a threat to take back the American colonies, worse luck.
The plot from there involves various chases through the streets of industrial London, the appearance of Holmes’ inamorata Irene Adler (a somewhat miscast Rachel McAdams), and a considerable amount of induction, deduction and general ratiocination. Along with a very busy camera and all-but-subliminal editing, Ritchie has tossed in lots of violence to appeal to the contemporary moviegoer’s palate. Holmes is an adept at bare-knuckles fighting, and he and Watson employ swords, pistols, and whatever comes to hand to bring low the numerous heavies. Again, this updating will not please everyone, and it earns the film its “PG-13” rating.
Still, even the fight scenes are made lightly comic, as when Holmes works out in advance (and instantly, but in slow motion), the complex set of moves he needs to vanquish a much bigger foe, then performs them at lightning speed. Another, this one is a shipyard, uses some wonderful old comic devices that fans of the genre will enjoy. Indeed, there’s a hint of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid about the proceedings.
Downey is immense fun to watch. His performances here and in “Iron Man” give him first refusal of a certain kind of ironic/heroic/comic figure, and both films look to initiate franchises. The end of “Sherlock Holmes” consciously sets up for a sequel; though I’m not usually a fan of such reprisals, I’ll look forward to it.