In the annals of crime-busters, not to mention English literature at large, Sherlock Holmes occupies a unique, self-defining place in the collective consciousness. He is shrewd and sharp when on a case, observant, deductive, and aware of obscure clues he considers “elementary,” to the delight of long-suffering partner Watson. Oh, and in other aspects of life, he is also a bit of a coke head, a shaggy dog when it comes to love, and an experimenter, in terms of mind-altering biochemical indulgences and more academic scientific pursuits.
To this list, in director Guy Ritchie’s modern film version, we can add kick-ass fighting man, who calculates the best plan of attack and then delivers the debilitating goods in hyper-slow motion. Given this complex blend of Holmes-ian traits, who else could Ritchie cast but Robert Downey Jr.? He is clearly the man for the job here, right down to his Chaplinesque physicality, even as the film ultimately loses its way down various detours and missteps. On this occasion, the often villain-typecast Jude Law plays the bespectacled “straight man” Watson, whose relationship with Holmes, as has oft been noted, sometimes verges on homoerotic magnetism. As in Inglourious Basterds, one of the most magnetic figures on screen is this film’s villain, the ultra-devious, seemingly death- and justice-defying Lord Blackwood, played with vulpine charm by Mark Strong. Rachel McAdams is the requisite lithe beauty and Holmes adversary/temptress Irene Adler.
As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle interpreters go, Ritchie, a proper and improper Brit director, wants it all ways. He obviously respects the Holmes legacy and lavish period-piece visuals and textures-grey and grim, and somehow sexy because of it-but tries to usher Holmes into the 21st century for generations not yet privy to Doyle’s delightfully odd superhero. But Ritchie is not always in control of the film’s intentions, on a rambling trajectory between witty whimsy, dramatic whodunnit deductions, and maze-like machinations, lined with choreographed violence.
It’s debatable, at best, whether this gaming-generation Holmes adaptation will send viewers racing back to Doyle’s saucy smart writing. It may, in fact, send them racing to see Avatar one more time.