by Bill Wine
Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
If Holmes is where your heart is, you’re in for a good time: The game’s afoot and so’s the fun.
The royally entertaining “Sherlock Holmes” (2009), one among several hundred films about the movie screen’s most frequently portrayed character, is a modern twist on Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective that managed to respect and honor the source material and tradition even while taking dramatic liberties and updating the mythology with an eye on modern sensibilities and tastes.
Guy Ritchie does not come immediately to mind as a logical choice for the directorial assignment: his machismo-celebrating films have not exactly been what you would describe as cerebral.
But Ritchie intended to turn the ultimate consulting detective into not only a deductive-reasoning savant but also an action hero — sort of a Better Holmes and Guardian – which at first glance seems predictable, wrongheaded, and, well, actionable. But son of a gun if the director doesn’t make the mix work. That is, “Sherlock Holmes”isn’t quite according to Doyle, but it’s not purely according to Ritchie either.
Working from a clever screenplay celebrating the industrial revolution that makes Homes not only brainy but brawny — a martial arts and fisticuffs practitioner — Ritchie gives us more of the same and something radically different at the same time. We’re taken down avenues of exploration about Holmes and Watson that we’ve rarely if ever traveled before, and yet the narrative’s various conundrums, anything but elementary, are solved in a smartly cathartic way by the final fadeout.
Robert Downey Jr. portrays the brilliant Victorian Baker Street sleuth. His dear sidekick, Dr. Watson, played by Jude Law, is also given something of a makeover, here much more of a companion and equal than the usual exploits chronicler and bachelor assistant.
So, yes, this is also a Victorian bromance, a look at the relationship of these two confirmed bachelors to see just what might be confirmable (yes, ye seekers of homoerotic underpinning, it’s there for the noticing).
In 1891, the imposingly villainous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), responsible for a string of murders and wanting very much to take over a fearful and intimidated England, is captured and prosecuted, but has a request before he is hanged. He asks for a visit from Sherlock Holmes. Holmes agrees, and at their meeting, Lord Blackwood issues a prophecy.
Later, when Blackwood returns from the grave and somehow reappears, a seeming demonstration of his mastery of black magic, Holmes and Watson and Scotland Yard are up against it. And Holmes also takes on a case brought to him by fetching con artist Irene Adler, played by Rachel Macadam’s, a previous love interest of his who may be more connected to the Blackwood imbroglio than she lets on.
Downey brings both charisma and wit to his Holmes, as well as the necessary physicality. Law is fine as well, and their unforced chemistry allows the fast-paced, lighthearted film’s sense of humor to register early and often.
Richie assumes our familiarity with the Holmes legend, not a bad way to proceed. He and his staff do an admirable job re-creating nineteenth-century London; the several action scenes are splendidly staged, shot, and choreographed; and he plays fair, parading clues in front of us that Holmes picks up on before we do.
If there are a few too many incendiary explosions, a fight or two that goes on too long, and a narrative that winds down in Act Three instead of heating up, well, we can live with those limitations because the intriguing central mystery holds up, as does the Holmes-Watson bond and repartee.
“Sherlock Holmes,” followed two years later by a respectable sequel, is a stimulating and satisfying PG-13-rated thriller that’s neither Holmes sweet Holmes, nor a long way from Holmes.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.