Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Rachel McAdams and Mark Strong.
Directed: Guy Ritchie. Rated M (violence). 128 mins.
Review by Jim Murphy
BASIL Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and most other actors who portrayed the most famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes on screen stuck pretty close to the character as described in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Not so Robert Downey Jr.
In the new film directed by Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch), Downey’s Sherlock is no passive intellectual, content to observe, deduce and in the final reel point the finger at the miscreant.
His is a two-fisted action man who likes nothing better than to relax with some bare-knuckle kick-boxing and can therefore match it with the best in any street brawl.
His appearance is different too – kind of scruffy, with designer stubble, open-necked shirts, possibly a cravat (but never a tie) and braces without a jacket.
Nowhere is glimpsed a cape or deerstalker cap, and he puffs a plain old straight-stemmed pipe instead of the distinctively shaped calabash model we associate with nights of deep rumination in the study at 221B Baker Street.
Director Ritchie and screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg have amalgamated parts of Conan Doyle’s creation that appeal to them (Sherlock’s deductive powers, the setting of Victorian London) with the characteristics of a 21st century hero that today’s action-hungry young audiences demand.
And in its own disrespectful way, it works.
If you don’t look at it as trashing the Sherlock brand, which it does, you should enjoy the ride in a rollicking action flick, a genre at which Ritchie has proved himself more than adept.
The storyline mixes the occult with a sort of Da Vinci Code secret society that has infiltrated the highest reaches of the British establishment and plots its destruction.
The film begins with Holmes and his associate, Dr Watson (Jude Law), nabbing an aristocratic killer, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong).
Blackwood is subsequently hanged, and it is Watson who pronounces him dead, but his tomb is later reduced to rubble and he is seen to have “resurrected himself”.
Deaths ensue according to a plan that – in accordance with best-practice by moviedom serial killers – can be plotted on a map (“This is where the next murder will take place!”).
Sherlock is half a pace behind the villain until the critical last moment, and the obligatory final confrontation, high above the Thames on the unfinished Tower Bridge, which was under construction in the early 1890s, is all you could want in an exciting showdown.
Good, too, is the wrap-up scene in which Sherlock puts together the pieces of the puzzle so we can see how clever he has been in picking up clues.
Downey’s laid-back performance as Sherlock (when not punching the living daylights out of a villain) is effective enough, but I don’t think he is fully tuned to the gentle humour that bubbles under the surface of the script.
The British actors are much better at subtle tongue-in-cheek, Jude Law being a case in point.
His Dr Watson turns the traditional ageing “friend and chronicler” into a feisty young medico who clashes with Sherlock at almost every turn, particularly when it concerns the sleuth’s appraisal of the young lady Watson is planning to marry.
They are forever bickering and Watson is not above punching him in the nose.
Mark Strong is also a stylishly over-the-top arch villain, Eddie Marsan is an amusingly pugnacious Inspector Lestrade, James Fox is imperturbable as ever as a government official and Geraldine James makes a fleeting appearance as Holmes’ landlady, Mrs Hudson.
Sarah Greenwood’s production design, recreating a gloomy, grimy 19th century London, is outstanding, and the soundtrack music, though hard to associate with the setting or period with its liberal use of folky Irish fiddles and banjos, contributes to the overall effect.
Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.