Like many young readers growing up in the 20th century, I read Sherlock Holmes as a kid.
I liked the English formality of the story – the cape, the hat, the pipe, the assured but self-effacing wit of the gifted detective.
I even fancied myself as his able if somewhat less studied assistant.
Elementary, my dear Watson, I mean, Williams.
Indeed, London’s Baker Street occupied my young imagination in the same way that Hogwarts Castle, perhaps, does for young readers today.
The new “Sherlock Holmes” film, starring the irrepressible Robert Downey Jr. as the astute English sleuth and Jude Law as his assistant, injects the famous and much-loved series with a renewed vitality. Think Hercule Poirot meets a 19th century Iron Man, helped along by a script that positively crackles, and director Guy Ritchie’s hyper-speedy and occasionally artsy slow-mo editing, which makes 19th century London feel like “The Matrix” on steroids.
The celluloid version finds Holmes and Watson less mentor and apprentice and more collegial equals. In a predictable but smart move, Downey plays Holmes as an ass-kicking and slightly snarky smarty-pants, as interested in thrashing the tar out of much more heavily-muscled gents in the boxing ring as he is in the intricacies of uncovering his subjects’ personal details. The repartee between Holmes and his long-suffering Watson feels a bit forced, in part because Jude Law is a charismatic force of nature in his own right, and must play a restrained second fiddle to Downey’s undeniably magnetic personality.
When the Holmes/Watson duo help Scotland Yard bust Lord Blackwood (symbolic name alert!), a former House of Lordsman-turned-seeming-sorcerer who ensnares beautiful maidens for warlock’s sport, the stage is set for mystery and intrigue. Throw in a sensual and mysterious love interest/adversary, and an unfolding and exotic journey through the streets of working class London, and “Sherlock Holmes” makes for entertaining cinema.
There are problems with the film. The villains – Blackwood and an even more shadowy figure named Professor Moriarty (think sequel – Sherlock, Part 2) – don’t engage with our heroes much, remaining in the shadows far too much to be all that interesting. The love relationship between Holmes and his mysterious girlfriend/adversary never really convinces. The biggest flaw, common in many detective films, is director Ritchie’s constant and somewhat annoying habit of using after-the-fact flashbacks to solve various mysteries for the viewer after they’ve occurred. After the fourth go-round, I began to feel like even more of an idiot than usual.
The film is also lengthy, clocking in at 2 plus hours, but never dull. Action sequences abound, punctuated by a narrative arc that feels surprisingly fresh, combining mystery, science, the occult, and political intrigue. To say more would ruin the Sherlock story.
See it for yourself.