'Sherlock Holmes': The Game's A-Fist
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Turning Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Victorian-age detective character into a modern, muscled-up popcorn flick, "Sherlock Holmes" is a bold reinterpretation that delivers action and thrills thanks to both real chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (as Holmes and Watson) and a sense of fun. In fact, if anything works against director Guy Ritchie's new-school take on the character (with Holmes as a bare-knuckle brawler and Watson as a right-hand man whose right hand is, more often than not, being punched into someone's face), it's that this new "Holmes" feels a little too bold, blown-up and blown out. It's more like a Victorian mash-up of Batman and James Bond than it is inspired by Doyle's original tales of observational genius.
And at the same time, you can understand the rationale behind the decision to raise the stakes from mere murder and run-of-the-mill robbery. The classic Holmes stories are, mostly, about two confirmed bachelors who sit in a dim study chain-smoking and thinking, and this, for a modern audience, will not do. So, bring on the explosions and the slow-mo scraps as Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, voice rippling with portent and power) enacts a plot to not only bring England to its knees, but also to seize America, a scheme that seems to invoke black magic that the efforts of Scotland Yard and Holmes' ticking rational mind cannot unravel.
Also: Unlock Your Sherlock
And through this global design and supernatural hugger-mugger, "Sherlock Holmes" is made bigger; is it, however, made better? If "Sherlock Holmes" were called something other than "Sherlock Holmes" ("Cool, Smart Guy in a Vest," say, or "Blow-'Em-Up Jones"), I'm sure I would respond to it a bit less critically, and wouldn't be holding it up against the earlier incarnations of the story and squinting quite so judgmentally. And I've heard all the marketing messaging that Ritchie and his three screenwriters have found the foundation for their two-fisted Holmes in the original stories, but, to paraphrase "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," when the pop-culture legend becomes fact, run with the legend; the deerstalker and the pipe may all be later additions, but they're later additions we've come to know and love. And, really, it's not the trappings and props that feel un-Holmesian here, but rather the scale and the scope.
And yet such qualms fell petty and small, or, at least, small compared with the blasts and buffets of the explosions and the considerable charm offensive Downey and Law mount. Playing Holmes and Watson as a crime-busting Odd Couple, they drive each other mad in the lulls between cases ("My mind rebels at stagnation," Holmes moans at one point. "Give me work!") but back each other up to the hilt when there's work to do. Downey's at a point in his career where he can play a thinking man's action hero almost without thinking, and that's pretty much what he does here. He has moments, like when Holmes, in a brawl, pre-plans his blows in voice-over before executing them with skill and will. And he's as comfortable playing the moody, impetuous side of Holmes as he is portraying the methodical, icy aspects of the character. Law, liberated from the poses and postures of high drama, gets to have some fun, and we do, too.
Ritchie's always made a mark with tales of London and larceny ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "RocknRolla"), and moving him back a century in time and up several magnitudes of production value still puts him well within the groove (or, some might say, rut) he's made for himself. Ritchie always likes criminals more than crooks, and it's no surprise that "Sherlock Holmes" kicks into a higher gear when Holmes goes on the lam from the law alongside American lady of larceny Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). The sprawl and sweep and squalor of London bursts with life on-screen (credit is very much due Ritchie's production team). And the setup for the sequel (Adler's working for a shadowy, unseen gentleman named ... Moriarty, dundundun) is as well-handled as one can hope for, although it remains to be seen if moviegoers will plunk down the pounds for this film enough to make that happen. "Sherlock Holmes" may feel a little too modern, more adrenaline than brain-power, more brash than British, but it's an all right action-pleasure if you don't mind that the game's more a-fist than afoot.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.