Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Fun. Lots of fun. Dark, grimy, hammer-you-in-the-face fun.

Sherlock Holmes is the perfect embodiment of a "Christmas Day" movie -- "Christmas Day" in this case being the Holiday version of "summer," meaning that season in which the big tentpole releases make big cash by entertaining the masses. It is nothing more and nothing less than a rollicking fun ride. Not as good as Iron Man, but made in the same cheeky spirit, with the same blend of witty humor and CG-heavy mega-action, and with the same inimitable leading man: Robert Downey Jr.

Downey is, plain and simple, the reason this movie got made. Even though he is obviously not British, the actor carries with him the perfect cockneyed swagger and sly comic timing to create a Sherlock Holmes who is simultaneously enjoyable as an homage to the legendary sleuth and as a off-kilter comic send-up of same. It's hard to think of anyone else who could play this character with the same charm and whimsy of Downey...almost impossible, actually, because he works so spectacularly well.

Directed by style-heavy purveyor of incomprehensible British gangster flicks, Guy Ritchie, this new version of Sherlock is a bombastic action-comedy that uses the master detective's brilliant deductive skills as clever narrative tricks and upgrades the detective's physical prowess so that he can kick ass while he solves capers. The conceit could have easily collapsed in disaster, and indeed this film -- presumably the first in yet another lucrative franchise for Downey -- at times has difficulty carrying the weight of its fast-talking stars, its CG-laden action set-pieces, and its labyrinthine plot all at once. But somehow the enterprise comes together, and the film carries on as high-octane entertainment with a generous dose of cool wit.

Ritchie purists who hold films like Snatch or Revolver in some sort of grand esteem may balk at the prospect of their favorite filmmaker "selling out" to direct a watered-down, PG-13 studio picture. But in truth, Sherlock Holmes is Ritchie's best film since his feature debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998. The director has always been a supremely entertaining stylist but an almost purposefully-perplexing writer, crafting screenplays so inscrutable that it sometimes induces a headache. He seems to fit more naturally into the shoes of a big-studio action director, where he can exercise his stylistic muscles into a film's visual palette (i.e. Sherlock's blend of bleached film stock and clever, adrenaline-pumping action) while leaving the writing to other close collaborators. For their part, Sherlock's writers -- Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg -- cobble together a mix of Doyle-isms and new material to craft a script that is equally heavy on exposition and action...not a perfect mixture, but serviceable enough as the first in this series.

I haven't even bothered to discuss the plot, because...why? For this version of Sherlock Holmes, it's not about the story itself but the manner in which the story is told. And for the record, it is told with great humor and panache. Downey is the ideal Sherlock. Jude Law is a perfect twist on Dr. Watson, and his exchanges with Downey are so charming they give life to the film's not-so-hidden subtext that many have discussed: that this is really a love story between Holmes and Watson. Rachel McAdams plays the obligatory spunky love interest, but she does not play her character as such -- she brings her own set of pathos to the table and kicks ass right alongside her male counterparts. These actors work together, and Ritchie corrals them in a lumbering package of humor and thrills. It's elementary, my dear: a new franchise is born.

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