Holmes reborn as action hero


POSTED: Friday, December 25, 2009

I'll go ahead and blurt it out now, as likely every review will, and the line was likely used to sell the film treatment in the first place—they've taken Sherlock Holmes and replaced him with Dr. Greg House.

The archetypal, thin-blooded egghead literary detective as the driven, drug-addled, nearly socio-pathic television doctor? Absolutely. And a somewhat inspired decision as well. After all, they're both the smartest guys in the room, pathologically attuned to detail, eccentric and irascible, able to synthesize disconnected data into a brilliant diagnosis ... er ... modus operandi.





        Rated: PG-13

Opens today in theaters






It's an interesting psychological move. However, the mythological shape of Sherlock Holmes is so ingrained into our pop consciousness that this new incarnation always feels like a clever—albeit fiendishly willful—impostor. This is a new Sherlock Holmes for a new age, made for a generation who have no idea that 221B Baker Street is a real address.

Despite all the dark and broody embellishments, this Sherlock Holmes is reborn as an action hero, a chap who is as likely to work out his demons in a fight club as try to train mayflies with violin notes (both occur in the film). As Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. goes shirtless much of the time, when he isn't duded up as an Oscar Wilde/Aubrey Beardsley fop.

Downey's English accent seems flawless, so much so that at times we need subtitles. Sidekick Dr. Watson—usually jovial and clueless—is played by Jude Law as more of a flat-mate who can't wait to move out (Holmes' half of the flat is a jumbled horror) and yet he cannot resist being drawn in by Holmes' intellect. They are on more of an equal footing here than in Holmeses Past, less Quixote and Panza and more like Butch and Sundance, wisecracking as they solve various mysteries.

One cannot help but speculate—Holmes would approve—how this came about. Law is a leading man, and clearly demands more juice in his role than that of buffoonish tail-wagger. Was this a matter of negotiation and rewrite? Also, despite every other bad habit of Holmes trotted out, the detective's use of cocaine is omitted. One can imagine Downey, fresh out of rehab, putting the nix on that.

Also firmly putting the nix on any evidence of Victorian boy-crush between Holmes and Watson are the presence of strong females; Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a super-smart super-thief who carried away Holmes' heart some time ago, and Watson's no-nonsense fiancee Mary (Kelly Reilly), whom Holmes bemuses and horrifies.

It's all terribly clever, but let down by a thuddingly humdrum plot created by no less than four screenwriters—never a good sign. It involves sneering arch-villain Lord Blackwood (refreshingly reptilian Mark Strong) and some sort of evil Masonic plot that involves both black magic and newfangled contrivances. It's ramrodded by director Guy Richie with his violent urban bovver-boy sensibility intact, just transported to an astonishingly filthy London of the 1890s. The Rachel McAdams character seems to be the only one in the whole film who bathes.

And once again, the real, hidden hero of this tangled knot is Hans Zimmer, whose musical score provides narrative and character clarity amid the grime.