The (awful) trailers for Guy Ritchie´s Sherlock Holmes were packed with explosions, fisticuffs, and a wink-wink ‘tude that seemed to recall Wild Wild West. This isn´t your father´s Holmes, who has gone through countless onscreen adventures since the dawn of cinema, and was defined by Basil Rathbone, a deerstalker cap and a meerschaum pipe.
Nor is this version particularly faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle, though certainly, some of the themes here that weren´t present in previous cinematic incarnations – the brawling, the drug abuse (though alcohol seems to have replaced cocaine) – can be traced back to the original stories.
No, this is precisely the kind of Hollywood blockbuster that advance materials have suggested, but, here´s the surprise: it ain´t bad at all. As long as you can accept it on its own terms. It´s a tightly woven, fluidly directed piece, devoid of almost all of the director´s usual indulgences; for that, it´s possibly Ritchie´s best film, and his return to cinematic consciousness after a nearly decade-long lull. I was shocked at how much fun I had with this movie.
Sherlock begins with Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) interrupting a ritual murder attempted by the snarling Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). It´s a nice scene, but the duo operate mostly by brute force, a little thinking-man´s action detail thrown in to save face. They may as well be Batman and Robin; if this puts you off, forget about the rest of the film.
Blackwood is convicted of a series of ritual murders and sentenced to death; before he´s hanged, however, he promises Holmes that this is only the beginning, and Sherlock will be powerless to prevent future events. Sure enough, shortly after Watson declares him dead and Blackwood is entombed, he apparently rises from the grave to continue his reign of terror.
Holmes is on the case. Which involves a secret order, hidden laboratories, a French giant, a “ginger midget” (these were less politically correct times) and yes, a number of nicely choreographed action scenes, including one at a shipyard and a climax atop Tower Bridge, still under construction and conveniently featuring a precarious drop in between two halves.
Ultimately, this Holmes comes across more Dan Brown – The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons – than Arthur Conan Doyle, but at least, on that level, it´s done right: with a straight-enough face that allows us to almost accept all the preposterousness, minus without the heavy-handedness that would drain away all the fun (and did in Ron Howard´s screen version of Da Vinci).
Subplots involve Watson´s attempted estrangement from Holmes in order to be with his future fiancé, Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly); Holmes´ relationship with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who is also looking into the strange goings-on for a shadowed mystery man, and Holmes´ back-and-forth with local authority Inspector Lestrade (nicely played by Eddie Marsan).
So this Holmes is a good-enough Summer blockbuster ported over to a Winter release, but there´s one thing that makes it nearly great: Downey Jr. in the title role, fully embracing the character with a wink and a nudge but also a diehard conviction that makes this interpretation of the character – after countless others – exceptionally vivid and empathetic, warts and all. He´s as good here as he was as Tony Stark (and Holmes is about as good as Iron Man), and these two performances have turned an unlikely Robert Downey Jr. into, perhaps, the biggest star Hollywood right now.
Other casting, particularly in the smaller roles, is uniformly fine; Marsan is a standout as Lestrade, and only McAdams feels out of place in the Victorian London setting, which is so grimy you can almost taste it, and sometimes oppressively filmed in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot.
Next best thing to Downey Jr.: Hans Zimmer´s twangy, Ennio Morricone-ish Western/Horror score, which continually pumps life into the proceedings. Absolutely wonderful.
Just make sure to take this Holmes for what it is, which is better than you could reasonably hope to get from a Sherlock Holmes movie produced by Joel Silver and directed by Guy Ritchie. For the traditional detective, there´s always the wartime Rathbone films, the more recent Jeremy Brett TV miniseries, and the best Holmes of them all – and this isn´t a jaded critic´s recommendation, but a truly great series of films – the 80s Russian TV productions directed by Igor Maslennikov and starring Vasili Livanov.
Note: there are few lines in French that are subtitled only in Czech on local screens.
And: this week welcomes the films of this year’s Project 100, a yearly project that brings a handful of classic (and contemporary) films into art cinemas throughout the Czech Republic. This year’s films are Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, Juraj Jakubisko’s Birds, Orphans and Fools, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, Herbert Ross’s Play it Again, Sam, Aki Kaurismäki’s I Hired a Contract Killer, Béla Tarr’s The Man from London, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. You can check them out in local cinemas throughout the year; for more info, visit www.projekt100.cz.