Reboot of literary classic plays fast and loose but remains reverent
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams
The cinematic watchword for 2009 was “reboot.” For better or worse, Hollywood has been cautiously rebooting film series for a few years now (James Bond, Batman, The Pink Panther, Halloween). But in 2009, the movie industry started rebooting the hell out of stuff. We got all-new, updated, reimagined versions of Friday the 13th, The Last House on the Left, Sorority Row, Star Trek, Terminator, Land of the Lost, The Taking of Pelham 123, G.I. Joe, Fame, Astro Boy and A Christmas Carol. The latest major character to get a ground-up spit-shine is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes.
Embodied by star-of-the-moment Robert Downey Jr. and directed with nervous energy by former Madonna hubby Guy Ritchie, this 2009 version of Sherlock Holmes manages to be reverently irreverent and a damn fine action comedy to boot.
The film bends the hell out of Doyle’s traditional mythology, but miraculously doesn’t break it. Unsurprisingly, Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Snatch; RocknRolla) injects the film with his usual laddish humor, testosterone-fueled action and manly characters. Gone is the deerstalker cap, the meerschaum pipe and the proper Victorian manners of old. This Holmes is a brainiac, sure, but he's also a lusty man of action who isn’t above breaking out some parkour or a little ultimate cage fighting if the situation calls for it. Don’t worry: Holmes is still the obsessive genius we all know and love. It’s just that he’s managed to apply his mind to the martial arts now as well. While this would all seem to make Holmes a ridiculous exercise in anachronism, Downey’s committed performance and Ritchie’s go-for-broke style make it work. What could have been silly and cartoonish (the Will Smith version of Wild Wild West comes to mind) emerges as savvy big screen entertainment.
The script (a mashup of work by newcomer Michael Robert Johnson and Invictus screenwriter Anthony Peckham) updates the familiar Holmes/Watson dynamic as a full-fledged bromance, with our odd couple protagonists trading insults, fisticuffs and winkingly heterosexual camaraderie. After years of putting up with Holmes’ bizarre behavior and mercurial mood swings, Holmes’ partner-in-crimefighting, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), is moving out of their London bachelor pad and taking up with a perfectly ordinary fiancée (Kelly Reilly, who’s also currently in Me and Orson Welles). This development puts Holmes into an even deeper funk than usual. The only thing that can break him out of it (and possibly lure Watson out of retirement) is a baffling mystery. And does Sherlock Holmes offer up a doozy.
It appears that creepy cult leader Lord Blackwood (Ritchie regular Mark Strong in an awesomely villainous turn) has returned from the dead after being sent to the hangman’s noose by the dynamic duo of Holmes and Watson. Claiming to wield unlimited supernatural powers, Blackwood sets in motion a mad plan to take over the world. (Cue maniacal laughter.) Throw in a sexy superthief in the form of Rachel McAdams (cute, but underutilized), a few explosions and a climactic battle atop the under-construction Tower Bridge and you’ve got all the necessary elements for seasonal crowd-pleasing.
Kung fu, black magic and high explosives? So when do the UFOs show up? I know: On paper, Sherlock Holmes sounds like a recipe for disaster. But the film really does hold it all together, resulting in the sort of madcap yet eminently logical mystery Doyle might have imagined if he had been hired to write a big-budget popcorn movie. (Plus, it’s still more realistic than 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes.)
The only major misstep is that Sherlock Holmes wastes a little too much time setting itself up for a sequel. We all know that in today’s climate the sequel is as inevitable as the video game spin-off; but the cliffhangerish, aren’t-you-excited-for-what-happens-next? ending seems like an unnecessary tack-on. Total purists and rabid anglophiles will have plenty to grouse about, but this is a solid example of how to reignite a classic for contemporary audiences.