Friday, January 08, 2010

Ritchie's 'Holmes' is cheeky good fun

Arthur Conan Doyle's famous literary sleuth is transformed into an action star in director Guy Ritchie's “Sherlock Holmes,” an energetic revisionist take on the classic character.

Holmes fans who enjoy the detective prim, proper and uptight and his loyal cohort Dr. Watson to be rotund and aloof will scream bloody murder over the great injustice that has been done to these beloved characters.

As embodied by Robert Downey Jr., Holmes is unkempt and his living quarters a mess of research and experiments. He is a rogue who enjoys a bit of rough and tumble underground boxing. As for Watson, the idea of him as a fat older man is actually out of step with the source material and didn't become popularized until Nigel Bruce took on the role in his pairing with Basil Rathbone.

Watson was an ex-military man with a limp from a war injury and Jude Law portrays that, but doesn't make him weak because of it. The film depicts Holmes and Watson brawling with various crooks and henchmen. These fights are presented with Ritchie's typical, gritty visual flare.

Ritchie is a writer and director whose specialty is darkly comic British crime films including “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” Although he didn't write “Sherlock Holmes,” the film very much feels in step with his previous films, albeit with the setting switched to 19th-century London. If you're willing to let go of some preconceptions of who Holmes is, Ritchie's sensibilities actually fit quite nicely within the Holmesian universe.

The screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckman and Simon Kinberg is peppered with barbed dialogue as Holmes bickers with Watson, insults Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) and flirts with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the one criminal to ever outwit him.

One of the script's best devices allows the audience to hear Holmes thought patterns and see a preview of his plan of attack in fighting someone. It is a nice touch that feels in tone with the Holmes character. There's also a fabulous scene where Holmes roams the streets of London picking up seemingly random items as he quickly constructs a disguise.

The plot involves Watson leaving Holmes for married life much to Holmes' dismay. The villain of the film is Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who appears to have cheated death and to possess supernatural powers. Holmes and Watson apprehended him in the first scenes of the film and it was Watson who pronounced him dead. Holmes uses this to pull Watson back into the game.

Downey and Law are both truly fantastic in their roles and they play off each other exceedingly well. Downey uses that same sort of off-the-cuff charm that helped make 2008's “Iron Man” such a success, and Law is a perfectly dry straight-man to the eccentric Downey.

Strong, who appeared in Ritchie's “Rocknrolla,” is a solid villain with a quiet intensity and creepy presence. McAdams, a versatile actress, holds her own when bantering with Downey, but feels somewhat out of place. Even so she's a likable screen presence and her return would be a welcomed one when the inevitable sequel is made.

There are several big action set pieces, including a spectacular one in a shipyard and thrilling climax on top of an unfinished Tower Bridge. Visually, as is true with all of Ritchie's films, there's a muted grimness that proves effective here. The recreation of 19th century is impressive and believable.

Overall, it is all pretty cheeky stuff, maybe a little too much so, but it also a whole lot of fun.

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