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January 3, 2010

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Manic update for Sherlock

Take it from a lifelong fan of Arthur Conan Doyle: Robert Downey Jr is so NOT Sherlock Holmes. That's not a hindrance -- in fact, it's a big help -- as he and director Guy Ritchie bring the dusty Victorian era detective into the modern world.

Enough of the trappings are left in their action romp "Sherlock Holmes" -- the lightning-fast cerebrations, the encyclopedic knowledge of London, the compulsive single-mindedness, the vain one-upmanship -- to make Downey a reasonably faithful embodiment of the figure Conan Doyle created.

And of course, this is Downey, whose career resurgence rests on his ability to make the most unlikely role his own. He doesn't look like the classic Holmes, he plays the man as a scamp, hunting laughs as much as lawbreakers.

But Downey lives large in the part and brings a human spark to cold egghead Holmes that will help pack in audiences for a character on the fringes since Basil Rathbone days.

Revisionists have done a number on Holmes before -- he was analyzed by Freud in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" and spoofed by Wilder in "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother."

So why shouldn't Ritchie put his London-rogues-and-rascals spin on Holmes and cast the detective into a brawn-over-brain action epic? After all, Conan Doyle's Holmes tales -- particularly the novel-length ones -- could be action rip-roarers.

The failing of Ritchie -- and a team of four writers who share story or screenwriting credit -- is the drab plot they build around Holmes, an uninspired tale of a secret society and potentially supernatural doings.

It's nonsense, a dumb Hollywood treatment that's beneath Holmes but is made watchable, even exhilarating at times, by clever chases and scuffles, a superb recreation of old London in its splendor and squalor, and the actors' amiable interplay.


Jude Law heads the supporting cast as Holmes' colleague, Watson, less a loyal sidekick in Ritchie's creation than an odd-couple roomie in a bickering-buddy romance.

Ravishing in every scene, Rachel McAdams suits the velvety, frilly Victorian garb she dons as Irene Adler, a cunning foil to Holmes as well as his romantic interest, the film's most-extreme revision.

Conan Doyle's Holmes was a monk who had no time or respect for women, save, in one thin story, a schemer named Irene Adler, the only woman who ever outsmarted him.

The literary Holmes admired Irene for her mind. Downey's Holmes admires McAdams' Irene for the whole comely package, and purists will groan over the puppy-dog caresses of Sherlock in love.

Holmes' big mystery is the case of Lord Blackwood (Ritchie regular Mark Strong, who physically resembles Conan Doyle's Holmes far more than Downey).

Hanged for a series of ritual murders, Blackwood won't stay in his grave, returning to terrorize London with an assault on Parliament aimed to bring him absolute power.

Skirting the fringes is shadowy Professor Moriarty, the criminal mastermind of Conan Doyle's tales, introduced here as Holmes' next great enemy for the sequel.

Eddie Marsan is perfectly cast as Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade, the professional who deigns to let Holmes dabble in detection. The few playful put-downs between Holmes and Lestrade outshine the wall-to-wall discord between Holmes and Watson, the latter about to move out of Baker Street to wed.

Downey and Law have a pleasant, wisecracking fraternity, Holmes the inspired headcase, Watson the stalwart comrade and caretaker.

Ritchie piles on the excess which serves him well in fashioning a dazzling version of 1880s London. But he could have toned down the manic, quick-cut style.

Ritchie cranks up Holmes' thought processes to such wink-of-an-eye speed that you begin to suspect it's meant to disguise the fact that no one is thinking much at all.


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