Detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his stalwart partner Watson (Jude Law)engage in a
battle of wits and brawn with a nemesis (Mark Strong) whose plot is a threat to all of

Holmes for the holidays.

* * * * (4 STARS): As astonished as he would be that his literary sleuth is still alive and kicking 122 years after he was first published, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may be less enamoured of the interpretation that Robert Downey Jr and director Guy Ritchie bring to the big screen, in the latest cinematic version of Baker Street’s craftiest denizen.

Doyle may also be a tad miffed he wasn’t around to negotiate gross profit points on the film, for massive box office success seems elementary. Gone is the unwieldy magnifying glass and deerstalker hat – Sherlock Holmes has been reborn as an action hero, and the makeover suits him.

Ritchie, finally (some would say thankfully) graduating from the modern London underworld landscape he has tilled almost exclusively for over a decade now, lets the audience know from the very first frame that his Holmes is no drawing room scholar. Hurtling through the cobblestone streets, his wildly unkempt hair flowing behind him, Holmes leaps and somersaults ahead of a carriage carrying his trusted offsider, Dr Watson (Jude Law). They arrive in time to foil the ritualistic slaying of a fair maiden, and capture the evil Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a psychotic serial killer who soon dangles from the gallows for his crimes.

Unfortunately for Holmes, the case’s closure leads to a period of unemployment. In these scenes, Ritchie and screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg concoct a different kind of Holmes; a shut-in, unconcerned with personal hygiene or his mental state, discharging firearms indoors with no regard for his co-tenant, Dr Watson. Their genial confrontation is the first insight we get into the friendship they share, and the banter between the men is one borne of familiarity, tolerance and affection, with a not insubstantial amount of frustration for good measure.

The mystery of Lord Blackwood deepens when his crypt is torn open – from the inside. His resurrection, and links to a secret society, sets in motion a chain of events that threatens the very order of the New World, to which Holmes and Watson find themselves inexorably entangled. Fans of Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), a Steven Spielberg production that was the last major studio version of Holmes’ life, will draw comparisons with these familiar plot elements – folkloric black magic and cult-like gatherings were central to that films conceit as well.

Into the twisted web of supernatural goings-on and high-stakes double-crosses appears Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), carrying with her a past of dubious record, and a flame that fuels Holmes’ passion.

With one action hero franchise already to his credit, Robert Downey Jr hardly needs another blockbuster to ensure career longevity. This, then, begs the question why this very 'American’ actor would take on the character of Sherlock Holmes. The proof is in the black pudding – his Holmes is a borderline savant, utterly anti-social in most respects and almost sociopathic in his disregard for anything but the truth of his latest mystery. When not functioning as a sleuth, he barely functions at all; amusing himself by trying different anaesthesia on Watson’s dog and indulging in bare-knuckle underground fights. Downey Jr thrives in the dark corners of Holmes’ psyche in a role that he truly inhabits. The one downside is that his English accent is little more than a mumble at times (and left many in the audience leaning towards the screen to hear what he was saying).

Law’s Watson is the perfect foil; he and Downey Jr work wonderfully well together, whether as turn-of-the-century buddy-cop action partners or as brandy-sipping well-to-do’s. Law shades Watson with considerable skill as well, painting a picture of a man on the cusp of acceptance into London’s high society (his poor fiancée Mary, played with a stoic understanding by the lovely Kelly Reilly, is patient beyond compare) but who can’t leave behind his friend or the life of adventure he represents.

Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood continues his climb towards inevitable stardom – he’s never been less than terrific in everything he’s been in (Rock’n’Rolla, 2008; Body of Lies, 2008; Endgame, 2009). Rachel McAdams is radiant and crucial to the plot, though is too quickly reduced to the damsel-in-distress role (Guy Ritchie isn’t known for his strong female characters). Other support work, including Eddie Marsan (last seen as the nasty driving instructor in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, 2007) as Inspector Lastrade, and ex-wrestler Robert Maillet as towering tough-guy Dredger, are spot-on.

Working with a budget like he’s never seen before, Ritchie’s art department, special effects team, costuming and set builders are at the top of their game – despite a murky grey London as its backdrop, Sherlock Holmes looks fantastic. Key action setpieces – a fistfight than spans three blocks and ends with Holmes and Watson dodging an enormous runaway ship, and a slow-motion sequence which puts the cast in the midst of an exploding warehouse – are first rate.

By this stage, Holmes purists are probably driving home, but even the most stout-hearted old-school scholar will acknowledge that if the characterisations and dialogue aren’t as Sir Arthur intended, there are enough nods to his original works to credit it as a respectful update of the source material. The modern audience knows too well the intricacies of forensic deduction, so a Basil Rathbone-like take on clue-gathering ('Mmmm, look what we have here, Watson") would not have worked. And Iron Man fans would certainly not have sat still for a history lesson. Ritchie, Downey Jr and Law have done just about as good a job at reimagining the great sleuth for the modern audiences as one could have hoped.

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2 hours 8 min
In Cinemas 26 December 2009,
Thu, 05/06/2010 - 11