Tuesday, December 29, 2009


The last man you would imagine as the ideal producer for “Sherlock Holmes” (**** out of ****) is none other than high-octane “Lethal Weapon” producer Joel Silver. Nevertheless, between action movie maestro Silver and audacious British director Guy Ritchie, the English counterpart to Martin Scorsese when it comes to making English mobster movies, Silver and Ritchie constitute a dynamic duo. Similarly, American actor Robert Downey, Jr., would seem least qualified to incarnate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal sleuth, but the “Iron Man” star makes it a neat fit. Well, neat might not be the appropriate word. While hygiene proves to be an annoyance to him, Robert Downey as Sherlock Holmes is nothing short of brilliant when he comes to making flawless deductions that would never occur to the less observant. Holmes notices the minutest detail, and he is forever cataloguing facts as well as experimenting with his own inventions, such as a handgun silencer. Silver and Ritchie have assembled a top-notch cast, including Jude Law, Mark Strong, and Rachel McAdams. This is the second time this year that historical London has been rendered in computer generated imagery and it looks extremely convincing.

Mind you, Holmes purists may hoist their supercilious eyebrows when they learn that Downey shuns the indispensable Basil Rathbone deerstalker cap and maintains a disheveled appearance. Incidentally, Rathbone played Holmes more times than anybody else in the Twentieth Century Fox/Universal Pictures franchise between 1939 and 1946. Later, when Universal Pictures appropriated the franchise from Twentieth Century Fox, the studio uprooted Holmes from the comforts of 1890s Victorian England and ushered him into the 20th Century so he could help the Allies defeat the Axis Powers. Meanwhile, Silver and Ritchie have lovingly recreated the Victorian setting in London during the 1890s, complete with Holmes’ rooms at 221B Baker Street. The latest Holmes strives to be more charismatic and less haughty than either Nicol Williamson in “The Seven Per-Cent Solution” (1976) or Robert Stephens in “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970).

Freshman scenarist Michael Robert Johnson, “Invictus” scribe Anthony Peckman and Simon Kinberg of “X-Men: Last Stand” have penned a preposterous but wholly entertaining screenplay that bristles with 130 minutes worth of serpentine twists and turns. You will definitely get your money’s worth. “Sherlock Holmes” pits Holmes with his faithful colleague, the dapper Dr. John Watson (Jude Law of “Cold Mountain”), against the Voldemortian-style villain, Lord Blackwood (creepy Mark Strong of “Body of Lies”), who conjures up more evil than Holmes has ever faced. The maniacal Blackwood invokes dark magic and kills helpless women to enhance his powers. Initially, Holmes and Watson thwart him from slaying his latest female victim. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan of “Miami Vice”) packs the predator off to the poky for the inevitable date with the gallows that Blackwood so richly deserves for his dastardly crimes. Watson officiates as the doctor who confirms Blackwood’s demise and signs the death certificate. No sooner has Blackwood been safely buried than the bugger shatters his tomb and walks the earth, creating hysteria in London, and making Watson look incompetent. Like any worthwhile villain, Blackwood has ambitious designs now that he is back among the living. Blackwood convinces everybody in London but Holmes that he possesses paranormal powers that make him indestructible. He plans to implement some sweeping changes in London as well as the world unless Holmes can thwart his evil designs.

Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law generate the same chemistry that made Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the 1940s Sherlock Holmes movies so popular. Unlike Bruce’s bumbling Watson, Law is treated as an intelligent equal to Holmes and they carry on some lively conversations. Usually, Watson isn’t given much to do in these adventures, but Law shares a greater part of the burden. In “Sherlock Holmes,” Watson dresses like a GQ Victorian gentleman and plans to marry Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly of “Pride & Prejudice”), and Holmes does everything possible to prevent it. Incidentally, the character Mary Morstan appears in the Doyle novel “The Sign of Four” as Watson’s lady friend. Meanwhile, Holmes has his own hands full of a seductress, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams of “The Notebook”), who likes to slip knock-out drops in his drink and leave him in embarrassing predicaments. Indeed, Adler appeared as a character in multiple Doyle stories about Holmes. She has been sent to confound Holmes by a murky individual in a carriage who sports a derringer on a mechanical contraption up his sleeve that allows him to instantly palm the weapon. Never do we learn his identity for sure, but he might be Holmes’ archenemy Moriarty. Apparently, Silver and Ritchie are saving this character for the sequel.

The bickering between Holmes and Watson seems even more amusing than the larger-than-life action set-pieces that Ritchie orchestrates with vigor and aplomb. The funniest scene has Holmes battling a towering French ruffian who literally destroys a dry dock and sinks the ship under repairs. Ritchie doesn’t direct “Sherlock Holmes” like an ordinary mystery, but spruces it up with flash-forward scenes that dissect the action—usually Holmes’ startling deductions—like something you would see in a “C.S.I.” television episode. For example, in a “Snatch” like scene where Holmes boxes with a superior opponent, our hero explains how he will topple his adversary with various blows and then Ritchie presents it in real time. People who hate the idea of Holmes as a pugilist should go back to the source. Doyle describes Holmes as a formidable bare-knuckles brawler in the novel “The Sign of Four” and Holmes even used martial arts against Moriarty in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Consequently, Holmes’ exploits as a boxer are not a great stretch since his literary counterpart performed these feats in literature. When Holmes makes a deduction, Ritchie draws us back in time to when Holmes acquired his insight that prompted his deduction. The finale on the London Bridge, which is under construction, caps off this sprawling adventure.

Whatever the case, “Sherlock Holmes” represents the first time in twenty years that a film about Doyle’s eccentric amateur detective has illuminated screens in America since the 1988 comedy “Without a Clue” that starred Michael Caine as a fraudulent Holmes. Ultimately, your decision to see “Sherlock Holmes” will rest on your willingness to accept the makeover that Holmes received. It is really not that radical a stretch when you remember the 1985 movie “Young Sherlock Holmes” where Holmes and Watson were teenage colleagues. Most of what happens here with both characters can be traced back to the literary Holmes. Boasting brains and brawn, “Sherlock Holmes” is anything but elementary.