I have to admit that I’m a bit Downey’d out. When I found out that the role of the latest incarnation of the British super-sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, was going to Robert Downey Jr., I was less than excited. It’s not that he’s not an excellent actor, or that his movies are not enjoyable, but the kind of smug, decadent, mischievous persona that seems to be his new standard (on screen and off) is not the kind of person I like to spend time with. I had always thought of Holmes the character (not that I’ve read any of Conan Doyle’s literary work) as a more disciplined, refined person. Like your average viewer watching a new interpretation, my first question was, How does this rendition measure up to my mental image? At first, it seemed that the brawling, bad-influence-type character was really wrong for Holmes, but kudos to Downey (and director Guy Ritchie) for not only making me forget the incongruity, but also making the whole movie plausibly enjoyable. If you overlook who this character is “supposed” to be, then you’ll have a lot more fun with this movie.
Part of the success of this film is owed to the odd-couple relationship between Holmes and Watson. Dr. Watson (played by Jude Law) is no longer the sidekick who nods admiringly from Holmes’s shadow. Instead,they bicker like room-mates, or an old married couple. Though Watson can play detective in his own right, Holmes doesn’t act like his mentor or teacher. Plus, Downey and Law have pretty good on-screen chemistry and it really boosts the film. It’s less Plato and Socrates, more Bert and Ernie between these two. Interestingly added to the mix is Irene Adler (played by Rachel McAdams with her usual spark), an ex-lover of Holmes’s who has bested him on several occasions (she’s Catwoman to his Batman). While she may have been a questionable ally, I was disappointed with her being used as a damsel in distress several times. Someone so resourceful should probably have been able to look after herself.
The plot is relatively convoluted, involving Victorian politics, black magic, and murder. There are lots of twists in the end, but I wish that the audience’s point of view was less ignorant. We are rarely given the benefit of noticing any of the clues that Holmes sees. Instead, we watch in slow motion as Holmes describes his plan for taking out his opponent, then watch it play out in real time. When he solves a mystery, he basically tells us the answer as we rewatch all the things that we “missed”. It takes a little bit of the fun out if we are just waiting for the answers. Good thing there are so many thrilling action scenes in this movie to keep our interest. This Holmes and Watson are more than mere Victorian gentlemen politely solving crimes. The Victorian England that Ritchie has recreated is grungy and a bit dangerous, and if you want to solve crimes you must be able to hold your own in a fight.
When you look more closely at it, this movie is less of a Victorian tale than a contemporary action thriller in 19th century disguise (they even find some steampunk way of trying to introduce technology that’s ahead of its time). I guess that’s why some have drawn parallels to The Batman character (and especially between this movie and last year’s mega-hit, The Dark Knight). Let’s hope that audiences feel that it lives up to the comparison.(4 out of 5)