Have the purists who self-righteously reject the idea of Sherlock Holmes as an action hero actually read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, or are they just working off the pop-culture image of a wiry, effete man with a magnifying glass stuck to his face? And regardless, why must anyone treat Doyle’s stories as sacrosanct? They’re pulp (influential pulp, but pulp nonetheless) featuring a flat, static protagonist—a protagonist who is described, by the way, as an expert at boxing and fencing and who also ably dispatches his foes with a cane and riding crop. So I really don’t see why anyone should be annoyed by Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes getting into a few fistfights in between deductive reasoning.
If you want to bent out of shape about the movie’s lack of fidelity to its source material, the better target would be the affectionate, congenial relationship between Holmes and Watson. In Doyle’s stories, Holmes is perpetually rude and condescending, treating Watson less as a friend than as a tiresome lackey. When I read the stories as a kid, I never understood why Watson would put up with Holmes, but their friendly rapport is the best thing about director Guy Ritchie’s new movie. As Watson, Jude Law gives his most charming performance in a decade, and Downey is as charismatic as always. Together they have great chemistry, making the movie far funnier and more entertaining than it would be otherwise. Screw fidelity—the truly un-Doylian elements of Sherlock Holmes are the only things that make it worth watching.
The plot of Sherlock Holmes is original to the film (or, you know, as original as a convoluted plot-by-committee can be), and it’s far too Byzantine to elucidate here. Suffice it to say that Holmes and Watson have been tracking Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, looking freakishly like Stanley Tucci) for a series of murders. Blackwood, who claims to have a hand in the occult, is apprehended, tried, and executed, but his body disappears from his tomb (sacrilege! ha!). The superstitious freak out, Holmes frowns at clues, the infamous Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) arrives on the scene, a few more bodies turn up, a secret society enters the picture, people get into fights, stuff explodes, boom! Meanwhile, Watson is getting married, and Holmes isn’t happy about it.
It’s all deeply silly, and Ritchie is a mediocre director, slick but impatient, no finesse. The filmmakers do land upon the great gimmick of slowing time at a few key points so we can watch Holmes work out his next move. I wonder whether they could have done that in evidence-gathering scenes, not just action sequences, but like Watson, we the audience must be left in the dark about what the hell is going on until the very end. In a droll inversion of the cliché of the monologuing villain, Holmes waits until the final scenes to explain, at length, how the villain did it. As it turns out, the plot had a few clever twists—who knew?—and a few classic deductive leaps on Holmes’s part. The scheme is ungodly baroque but, on the whole, not bad.
Even so, the movie only shines when Downey and Law are on screen together; involving McAdams was a mistake. Nothing against the actress—she’s fine—but she and Downey are wet ashes next to Downey’s spark with Law. Adler is a classic character in her own right, so it’s sad to see her so poorly used, and the implication that she is Holmes’s Achilles heel and he hers feels completely wrong in this film. This Holmes’s true soul mate, if you will, is undoubtedly Watson. Their relationship needn’t even be read as sexual: Holmes needs Watson, Watson needs Holmes, they’re a co-dependent match made far from heaven, and they’re hilarious. I don’t give a damn about whether Sir Arthur would like that or not.