Since his introduction to the world in 1887 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes has been much celebrated for his cleverness. He's a cerebral detecting machine, able to slip in and out of disguises and make it all look "elementary." But have his steely abs ever been given their proper due? Have we remarked enough on what a cutie pie he is, especially when bantering with Dr. Watson?
No and no, but director Guy Ritchie is trying hard to correct our mistake with his populist version of Sherlock Holmes, which features Robert Downey Jr.'s six-pack in a starring role and Jude Law as his partner more in bromance than crime solving. Ritchie's Holmes is smart, to be sure, as he's been in dozens of movies and television series, but his legendary embarrassment of mental riches isn't going to embarrass anyone. In this movie, his ability to throw a right hook or dodge a flying fist matters just as much as his brain. Our new Holmes fights bare-chested in the street, and when he gets into trouble, he talks through his moves in his head, computing the angle of the blow and the damage it will inflict before actually striking, which we see in slow motion.
This gives Ritchie an opportunity to show the action twice, a technique that worked well enough to provide the backstory on shell games and heists in previous Ritchie movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. But here it feels like he's just trying to maximize the violence because it's so much more fun for him than the brainy stuff. Holmes' actual crime-solving scenes slip by in an unmemorable instant; there's even one central mystery that's resolved by him dipping into a volume called The Book of Spells. Frankly, the guys on CSI use more deductive means of reasoning.
The story begins with Tower Bridge in the final stages of construction quick, where do you think the final fight sequence will take place? and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) about to leave Holmes for a girl, Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). Holmes is jealous, to put it mildly, and they bicker like something out of a much lesser Judd Apatow movie. "My rooms," says Watson, referring to the Baker Street apartments they share. "Our rooms," Holmes retorts. "My dog," says Watson, referring to the corpulent white dog Ritchie cuts to for an occasional punchline. "Our dog," Holmes says tartly. They'd be "The Odd Couple" if they were funnier and actually mismatched (Law is too pretty to play Watson).
The crime involves a member of the House of Lords, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, his hair shaped in a shiny black cap that makes him look like one of the Fisher Price little people), with a penchant for the perverse and the supernatural. He's caught by Holmes in the film's opening scenes in the middle of some Satanic ritual and condemned to death by hanging, but threatens to return from the grave. Holmes' favorite dangerous lady, "the woman," Irene Adler is also on hand. She's played by Rachel McAdams, who is saucy and fetching, but we don't believe for a minute that this is really a woman who would give Sherlock Holmes a run for his money. Or rather, the Sherlock Holmes, the one we never imagined was hiding a six-pack under his tweeds.
It isn't surprising that Ritchie, a director who essentially keeps making the same glib, lively movie over and over again (with the exception of 2002's Swept Away, which stands alone in defiant atrocity) would turn Holmes into an action hero. Nor does it feel like a sin against humanity or literature; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was fun but he wasn't exactly Henry James. What is surprising is how bland the results are. The explosions and action sequences have an odd cheapness to them and the central plot is one of those dreary take-over-the-world routines. (Blackwood has "set his sights on America." Don't they all?) Even more surprising is that Robert Downey Jr. doesn't manage to overcome all that. In theory, he seems like such a good casting choice for a new Holmes; no actor of the appropriate age working today seems more quick-witted or verbally agile. Holmes was a late-19th-century bad boy, known for dipping into the cocaine here and there, and Downey Jr., reformed though he may be, is still our favorite bad boy. To imagine him in a different Sherlock Holmes movie, one darker, smarter and less desperate to entertain, invigorated by a less standard-issue plot, is to dream of what could have been.