If you can get over the idea of Sherlock Holmes as an action hero — and if, indeed, you want to — then there is something to enjoy about this flagrant makeover of fiction’s first modern detective into a man of brawn as much as brain. To say that this is not grandpapa’s Sherlock Holmes will be either irrelevant or a plus for most of the intended audience, who know the iconic Victorian/Edwardian-era sleuth by reputation if at all. A good number of Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron Man” fans will likely follow him here, as he turns the venerable deerstalker-capped and becaped figure into a gym-toned, half-deranged Holmes unlike any seen before. Worldwide prospects look potent.
Memorably played 14 times by Basil Rathbone through the ’40s, Holmes has been seen only intermittently onscreen since then, notably in Billy Wilder’s inspired but tragically truncated 1970 “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” as well as in “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” in 1976 and “Young Sherlock Holmes” in 1985; on British television, played by Jeremy Brett; and in an animated series, voiced by Peter O’Toole.
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Theoretically, Arthur Conan Doyle’s genius of Baker Street is as open to reinvention and reinterpretation as any character, so there is a measure of amusement to be had in observing the contortions producer Joel Silver, director Guy Ritchie and screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham (“Invictus”) and Simon Kinberg (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) have gone through to refit the character to the presumed requirements of the mass international audience.
Their choice was to transform the historically slim, reclusive, intellectual eccentric into an evident manic depressive whose idea of recreation is to slum in what looks like an East End precursor of the fight club. Such Holmes purists as may remain will blanch, but young audiences, particularly males, will likely swill the topped-out serving of sweaty masculinity, flexing muscle, imaginative violence, unusual weaponry, impudent banter and ballsy effrontery.
Although Downey’s recent ascent to action-blockbuster topliner defines the nature of this new Holmes, the thesp’s essential identity as a resourceful and vigorous character actor asserts itself up to a point. Distractingly, for the time period, he sports a wild-haired, stubbled look that makes him resemble Al Pacino’s kid brother, and there are times when his well-accented Britspeak reaches such basso depths that his dialogue can’t be fully understood. But his keen eyes, quick tongue and edgy combustibility do lend credence to a man who’s able to see, anticipate and comprehend things others can’t — which, in this case, includes a slow-motion compendium of the bodily harm that awaits his opponent at fisticuffs.
Once past the nonsensically overloaded martial-artsy opening stretch, a worthy opponent to Holmes announces himself in the person of Lord Blackwood (the ever-impressive Mark Strong). Condemned to die for the murder of several women, this self-possessed practitioner of black magic ominously warns that, “Death is only the beginning,” as he is led to the hangman’s noose, after which he is duly pronounced dead by none other than Holmes’ sometimes partner and chronicler, Dr. Watson, now transformed into a dashing pretty boy by Jude Law.
Unfortunately for Holmes, Watson and the other citizens of London, Blackwood shortly resurrects himself and undertakes to establish his New Order, with part of the plan being Britain’s reconquest of that former colony across the Atlantic. Blackwood’s organization, a Masonic-like cult with members in high places, also prefigures fascist iconography in terms of greatcoat design, hair stylings and expressive scowling, so at least sartorially, its members have a distinct edge on the disheveled Holmes.
In addition to taking on men twice his weight in hand-to-hand combat, Holmes diverts himself by undermining Watson’s relationship with his fiancee (Kelly Reilly) and coping with the return of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a master criminal who has twice bested Holmes in the past and whose personal intentions with him are far from honorable. Curiously, the one area of traditional Holmesiana the script doesn’t really transgress is his lack of romantic attachment. Some backstory and offscreen shenanigans with Irene are suggested, but there remains a reticence to doing anything dramatically interesting with this woman, who is not very well integrated into the rest of the story, a shortcoming the normally resourceful McAdams is unable to do much about.
Action scenes are devised to accentuate aspects of turn-of-the-century industrial London, ruffians of notably indestructible stature (particularly a scar-faced giant who just keeps on coming) and deaths of a diabolically creative nature that only the scientifically adept Blackwood could concoct and the encyclopedically knowledgeable Holmes could analyze. After a well-prepared dramatic climax in Parliament, a putative action exclamation point feels hokey and too CGI-dominated.
Olde London town probably hasn’t looked this filthy onscreen since David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” and every frame has been crammed with visual stimulation thanks to Sarah Greenwood’s detailed production design, Philippe Rousselot’s gritty lensing and Jenny Beavan’s determinedly creative costume design. Ritchie has never worked on a scale anything approaching this before and, while some of the directorial affectations are distracting, he keeps the action humming.
Still, the single most important craft contribution is Hans Zimmer’s score. Overbearing in the opening scene and opportunistic in its lift of a key melodic phrase from Ennio Morricone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” soundtrack, it soon settles in to provide not only narrative propulsion, but enormously helpful mood colorings. The orchestrations are particularly fresh, with bracing use of the zither and other unusual instruments introducing surprising textures throughout.