Watching the detective

Pub date December 21, 2009
SectionFilm Review

FILM Like many movies to come before it, and surely many to come after, Sherlock Holmes is completely misrepresented by its trailer. The producers were understandably eager to get butts in the seats on Christmas, and for modern audiences, butts in the seats means fists in the face during commercial breaks.

There is some perfunctory ass-kicking in director Guy Ritchie’s big-ticket adaptation of the venerable franchise, but old-school Holmes fans will be pleased to learn that the fisticuffs soon give way to a more traditional detective adventure. For all his foibles, Ritchie is well-versed in the art of free-wheeling, entertaining, London-based crime capers. And though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary characters have been freshened up for a contemporary audience, the film has a comfortingly traditional feel to it.

Ritchie is lucky to have an actor as talented as Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, and the pair make good use of the American’s talents to create a Holmes resplendent in diffident, pipe-smoking, idiosyncratic glory. Though the film takes liberal creative license with the literary character’s offhand reference to martial prowess, it’s all very English, very Victorian (flying bowler hats, walking sticks, and bare-knuckle boxing), and more or less grounded in the century or so of lore that has sprung up around the world’s greatest detective.

Jude Law’s John Watson is a more charismatic character this time around, defying the franchise’s tradition, and the byzantine dynamics of the pair’s close friendship are perfectly calibrated. Holmes and Watson join forces with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a Yankee femme fatale who has also been fleshed out from between the lines, and take on the sinister Lord Blackwood, played menacingly by Ritchie veteran Mark Strong.

The script, by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg, suffers a little by borrowing from other Victorian crime fictions better left untouched, but they get the title character’s inimitable “science of deduction” down pat, and the plot is rife with twists, turns, and inscrutable skullduggery. Holmesians have suffered since the death of Jeremy Brett (whose portrayal of the sleuth Downey can rival, but never outstrip), and it is a pleasure to inform them, along with the rest of the nation’s holiday moviegoers, that the game is once again afoot.

SHERLOCK HOLMES opens Fri/25 in Bay Area theaters.