It's almost a given that someone is going to be horrified by the end product any time a filmmaker takes on a beloved fictional character and tries to bring him to three-dimensional life — Batman, Frodo and Gandalf, et al. You knew that was going to be doubly true when Guy Ritchie set out to bring the iconic detective Sherlock Holmes to the screen. Guy Ritchie's output over the last decade hasn't been strong, and Holmesians are — like their idol — a cerebral lot. Many of them take Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novels as sacred texts. What's more, this new Sherlock is definitely ALL new — no Calabash pipe, no deerstalker hat, and with a
Even so, those who have only a passing acquaintance with Holmes and Dr. Watson will find a lot to like in this new incarnation. Holmes is still whiplash quick and ravishingly perceptive, able to tell parentage from the set of the ears. But he's also very much a reboot in the “Batman Begins” model — as happy to fracture your jaw as he is to play his violin and sip a cup of tea. Yes, that's probably sacrilege to your average Holmes fanatic. But it's also loads more exciting for your average Joe.
The film begins with Sherlock (a brilliant Robert Downey Jr.) and his faithful companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) at odds, with Watson moving out of the rooms he has shared with Holmes for years due to the detective's poor hygiene, crummy violin playing, constant dangerous experimentation and general roomie-from-hellness.
Enter the villain, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). A practitioner of dark magic, Blackwood is in the process of killing young women to complete a dastardly spell when he is tracked down by Holmes, captured and sent to the gallows. Blackwood refuses to stay dead, however, seemingly returning from the grave before approaching a Freemason-like secret society of powerful men with his plot to take over England and the world through evil wizardry. It's up to Holmes, Watson, and Holmes' criminal paramour, Irene Adler (an out-of-her-depth Rachel McAdams), to figure out the mystery of the modern day Lazarus and save the day.
Though there are some holes in “Sherlock Holmes,” it's mostly a romp that stays smart while never taking itself too seriously. Ritchie and his production team do a particularly good job capturing gritty Victorian London, where the rich folks look like they could use a good scrubbing and the poor folks look like they could use a long dip in a solvent tank.
A large part of why “Sherlock Holmes” works has to be credited to Downey. Still one of the best actors working, Downey imbues his version of Holmes with a dazzling sense of lightness and fun. He is helped along mightily by Law, whose put-upon Watson brings a new complexity to the granddaddy of all faithful sidekicks.
While you can't please everyone all of the time, there's a good chance that if you don't take it all too seriously, you'll find something to like in “Sherlock Holmes” — if only the richness of the world created on screen. One thing is elementary: It's a great time at the movies.