‘Sherlock Holmes’: Action Man, By Kurt Loder

Robert Downey Jr. does his best, but he's no match for Guy Ritchie.

Director Guy Ritchie calls his new movie “Sherlock Holmes,” but surely he’s kidding. The title of this picture should be changed immediately to “Robert Downey Jr.” Ritchie’s revisionist take on “the world’s greatest consulting detective” may be a good thing, in a way (Downey is always entertaining), but it’s a bad thing in several other ways.

Holmes buffs will be taken aback by how little the movie derives from the Holmes canon — the four novels and dozens of short stories that Arthur Conan Doyle began publishing in 1887. Doyle’s Sherlock was a supercilious egghead with little use for firearms and none at all for women. Downey’s rendition of the celebrated sleuth — whom he plays with ripe, fruity intonations that often suggest an English accent — is an action man: a disheveled bohemian who packs a revolver, dabbles in bare-knuckle boxing and has a definite eye for the ladies.

Well, one lady. Doyle’s Holmes was chastely obsessed with the mysterious adventuress Irene Adler, the only person who ever outfoxed him. Here, played by Rachel McAdams, Adler is the hot love of Holmes’ life. Then there’s Dr. Watson, Holmes’ Boswell, the chronicler of most of his adventures. In the books, Watson is an affable muddler; in the movie, played with great good humor by Jude Law, he’s as much of a kickass crime-fighter as Downey’s Sherlock. There are some wisps of vintage Holmes lore tucked in around the edges of the story (the bored detective idly shooting holes in the wall of his room, a passing reference Watson’s war experience in Afghanistan), and a few jokey riffs (Holmes smokes a pipe here, but it’s pointedly not a fat, curvy meerschaum; and when he whips out a magnifying glass, it’s but a wee small thing). In every other respect, though, this is a whole new Holmes world.

The story is also a departure. Sherlock’s adversary this time out is the newly-invented Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), an adept of the dark arts who is conniving to bring down the British government and install a satanic new order. At the film’s beginning we find Holmes and Watson intervening in one of Blackwood’s occult rituals, which involves a torch-lit basement, a gathering of hooded devotees and a young woman stretched out on a sacrificial altar. Blackwood is arrested, tried for practicing black magic and dispatched on the gallows. In a matter of mere movie moments, though, he’s back from the dead and up to no good again.

Can Holmes somehow stop this supernatural blackguard? Can he lure Watson away from dallying with his own lady love (Kelly Reilly) to provide backup? And what about Irene Adler? She claims to want to help, but then we learn that she’s actually in the employ of a sinister “professor.” (Guess who, Holmes fans.) We never really see this character, but then his only purpose in the proceedings is to set up a sequel.

Soon Holmes and Watson are beset by louts, and there’s much chasing about and brawling in shipyards and slaughterhouses and other grimy locales. This being a Ritchie film, some of the action is incoherent (as is some of the plot — I spent half the movie trying to figure out who the “ginger midget” was). And while Downey and Law are a crack team, and bring a lot of personality to the picture, they’re frequently eclipsed by the endless uproar.

Ritchie’s pandering to the action audience (an agenda no doubt reinforced by knock-’em-dead producer Joel Silver) strips Holmes’ world of its style. The director and his production designer, Sarah Greenwood, have taken considerable pains to conjure the dark cobbled streets and plush interiors of Victorian London — as shot by Philippe Rousselot, this is often a great-looking movie. But the sense of prickly wit and gracious restraint that was translated to the screen so well by the old Holmes films — with their indelible performances by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson — is buried in the over-amped frenzy of this new picture. The only real mystery here is how anyone involved could have thought that trashing such a classic would be a cool idea.

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