The new, action-packed version of Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr., as the genius detective and Jude Law as his faithful sidekick, Dr. Watson, opens with the normally sedate Mr. Holmes punching, jabbing, leaping, and crunching his way toward a Satanic villain who is about to sacrifice a beautiful maiden on a stone altar. Exciting? Yes. But Sherlock Holmes as an action hero? Never!
Holmesian purists objected vigorously to this new, young, rough-and- tumble version of the iconic armchair detective. Holmes is supposed to be calm, calculating, and cerebral, his Watson rotund, refined, and a little slow. Now we see Holmes boxing in a gambling den, wallowing in household clutter, drinking or drugging himself into a stupor, and battling hand-to- hand with grotesque villains straight out of a James Bond story. What gives?
In point of fact, director Guy Ritchie is not so far off the mark. Arthur Conan Doyle created a much more complex character than the pipe-smoking sleuth with superhuman powers of deduction.
Though not one to exert unnecessary effort, Holmes actually does leave his comfortable armchair quite frequently in the four novels and 56 short stories in which he appears. Like the Holmes in this new film, he dons disguises, engages in boxing and swordplay, is adept at the Asian martial arts, conducts chemical experiments (often using his own blood), breaks the law when necessary to solve a case, and uses cocaine and morphine to stimulate his senses when he is not engaged in a fascinating puzzle. (Both drugs were legal in England in the 19th century.)
Those of us who grew up on reruns of the Basil Rathbone series of movies expect our Holmes to be impeccably dressed, upwardly cultured, and ensconced in tidy, well-appointed rooms – so it may be somewhat dis- concerting to see this Holmes wallowing in seeming squalor, surrounded by piles of clutter, and minus his trademark houndstooth cape and deerstalker cap. But this isn’t so out of character from the original Holmes. Watson complains in several stories about Holmes’ almost slovenly rooms, his stacks of unopened correspondence and piles of reading material. Yet, like many geniuses, Holmes can reach into anyone of these stacks and retrieve precisely the paper he is looking for.
Thus Ritchie remains faithful to the original source even as he seems to tum Holmes into a completely new character. True aficionados will have to admit, albeit grudgingly, that Ritchie did his homework. He simply chose to focus on character traits that modernize the famous sleuth, creating a Holmes that is accessible for a new generation. Fans will also recognize Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) as the recurrent female character in the Holmes lexicon, and Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Moriarty, who makes an appearance as well. Holmes’ trademark pipe also plays a critical role in the film, although it isn’t the bulbous, pelican-shaped Meerschaum we associate with him.
Like many Holmesian stories, (and Bond films, for that matter) uSherlock Holmes” opens with the climax of a case, as Holmes and Watson fight fiercely to capture a ritualistic assassin who turns out to be a member of Parliament. The murderer is quickly tried, convicted, and executed. End of story, on to the next case. But the murderer seemingly returns from the dead to continue his murder spree, and Holmes is called back to re-solve the case. Meanwhile, Irene Adler shows up looking for a red- haired midget (bizarre characters being de rigueur in the Holmesian tradition), and the two capers, unsurprisingly, tum out to be connected.
The storyline seems a little muddled early on, but don’t worry – it all comes together in the end. And, as in many good action films, the story itself doesn’t really matter that much; it’s the process that hooks us, and this pro- cess is pretty dam good. Holmes’ legendary deductive reasoning is shown effectively through stop-action flash- forwards and flashbacks, with Holmes supplying his famous explanations in voiceover. The relationship between Holmes and Watson is well-developed. Only Irene Adler is badly portrayed by a too-modern Rachel McAdams.
Personally I prefer a mystery with a little more plot over an action movie. But I have to admit that Guy Ritchie has given us an exciting new Holmes for a new generation, without turning his back on old fans.