It’s not your mother’s Sherlock Holmes. It’s not Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, or Gene Wilder. Robert Downey plays the world’s most famous consulting detective as a rock star, analytical and unstable, brilliant and self-destructive, self-aware and vulnerable. And he’s an action hero. He and Watson both are thinking action heroes. It’s refreshing.
Jude Law’s Watson is as close to the character from Conan Doyle’s stories as any I can remember. He is very smart, practical, brave—and he knows how to handle Holmes when Holmes slips into the funk that follows a successful case, when that razor-sharp mind turns in on itself, when boredom and a fear of irrelevance drives Holmes to drugs and destructive behavior. As the movie opens, Watson is planning to move into a new place preparatory to his marriage to his fiancé Mary. Holmes is not-so-secretly terrified of this development, because he knows that Watson is his lifeline to sanity.
This gives the movie complexity and slows it down too much in the beginning. After a thrilling action sequence opening, we bog down for a bit in this kind of emotional exposition. It makes the movie not too long but too slow. The audience quickly realizes that the villain in that opening sequence is not going quietly to the gallows and that Holmes isn’t going to like Watson’s fiancé no matter what kind of person she is. After a while, though, a mysterious woman—”the woman,” Irene Adler—shows up and we all breathe a sigh of relief. If Adler’s on board, things are going to be exciting.
One interesting bit is Holmes’s mental rehearsal of fight sequences. We see this twice. It’s nice to see Holmes’s mind at work, not just in collecting data but in physical campaigns as well. It’s also nice to watch the relationship between Watson and Holmes. Watson isn’t a lackey. He’s an equal. Even though he and Holmes are fighting, they work together with the instinct and rhythm of the team they are. Whether it’s Watson immediately starting a forensic review of some burned pages found in a dead man’s laboratory, or Holmes murmuring “Meat or potatoes?” as the two of them face three adversaries, one of whom is a giant, we see the years of experience these two men share.
The plot will seem reminiscent of several other movies or books, particularly From Hell. This doesn’t matter. It’s Holmes’s deductions and how he turns the tables on his adversary that matter. CGI of the Thames and the sweeping panoramas of London are beautiful, as are Adler’s (Rachel McAdams) glamorous costumes. Sets are darkly lit and luscious, evoking the feeling of Victoriana (I have no idea how accurate the sets are). The movie is chock-a-block with mazelike scenes—a street carnival when Holmes follows Adler after she leaves Baker Street; the slaughterhouse before its devastating explosion; the shipyards; the underground of Parliament. An added bonus for some of us, Celtic music, vocalized by the Dubliners, shows up now and then!
The movie is entertaining. I think the critics probably won’t like it. I hope audiences will. Three smart strong characters exchanging witty dialogue, leaping across chasms and dodging through labyrinths, disagreeing about many things but ultimately loyal to one another, while Celtic fiddles play in the background; what’s not to like?