The 120 year translation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes from futzy, spindly Victorian sleuth to deductive action hero is both surprising and absolutely delicious.
Directed by Guy Ritchie, written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg, Lionel Wigram, based on characters created by Doyle, the pugilistic tone of “Sherlock Holmes” is set early on. Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), after having deduced some private and unpleasant (to Victorian ears) facts about Watson’s (Jude Law) fiancée, Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), pulverizes a thug in a fight ring. Not only is Downey bare chested (Holmes, bare chested?), he’s also chisled, and mentally plots out the entire fight sequence in slow-motion before it happens (like Arnold’s Terminator).
Downey Jr. and Law attack the Holmes canon, each other, and whatever villain gets in their way with performances that are not only inspired but also keep your eyes riveted to the screen. Not only are they bonded brothers, they are Don Quixote and Sancho in their intrepidness and, even more entertaining, like that old married farm couple Grant Wood portrays in his iconic painting, “American Gothic.” Some of the funniest scenes in the movie occur when Holmes has to deal with the fact that Watson is moving out of their shared home and thus forcing Holmes to get by, hygienically, socially, professionally, on his own.
They consort and maraud through a Victorian London whose visuals are appropriately inspiring and whose tone is low key and somber, with the exception of Irene Adler’s (Rachel McAdams) crimson dress and ruby red lipstick. Downey Jr. and Law are dressed like the respectable men that they theoretically are but, to judge by the disdain with which they wear their clothes, they’re more like something that would appear on the cover of “Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club.” The lethal, low-key tone is confirmed with Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack that lurches about like the theme song from the TV series, “Dexter.”
The movie flows from one-thing-to-sleuth to another without a hitch. The fight scenes are many and are, for lack of a better word, enchanting. Be it a dungeon, a shipyard, a slaughterhouse, the houses of Parliament, mid-span atop a bridge in mid-construction, Holmes and Law pound perpetrators with Cirque du Soleil grace and suaveness, throwing both quips and blows with equal measure, though it must be noted that Watson gets stuck with a lot of the fisticuffs whilst Holmes is cogitating.
The most fascinating scenes are those in which Holmes, either in mid-punch or else in the sanctuary of his disheveled apartment sorts out seeming disconnected facts. It’s an uncommon delight to watch him enter a room and take in everything, from smells to style of shoes, all of which he later analyzes for relevance. With his intense, otherworldly concentration, he far surpasses the visible-thinking scenes Russell Crowe enacts in “A Beautiful Mind.”
In a movie in which style vies with substance and the contest comes out dead even, Downey Jr. captures the intellectual part of Holmes while at the same time making him teeth-grindingly handsome, witty, and stylish, proficient with nunchucks and his fists, pre-dating Daniel Craig’s James Bond by a century. Likewise with Jude Law’s Watson. Dapper and deadly, remarkably patient and devoted to his wayward, brilliant chum, he’s the perfect Laurel to Downey Jr.’s Hardy. Together they form a dramatic arts dictionary definition of chemistry.
McAdams, as Holmes’ old flame (it’s easy to see why things didn’t work out between them), the only one to outsmart him, fits in in as an exquisite third cog. She nicely acquits herself as an action heroine: she’s devious, a fighting sorceress, and as witty, funny, and as attractive as the two male leads.
And their common foe Lord Henry Blackwood (Mark Strong), intent on world domination with a weapon of mass destruction, wears his diabolical character well. He’s devious enough to create a weapon that could kill scores of people at one go, even more brilliant enough to realize that he could wreck more than death and destruction by waging a public relations campaign based on fear of the supernatural.
Finally, the movie sets up the prospect of an already much-awaited sequel when it turns out that Irene Adler was actually working for a shadowy character by the name of Moriarty, who has stolen the practical part of the weapon of mass destruction and God only knows what he’ll do with it.