With the exception of director Bob Clark's Murder by Decree, in which Sherlock Holmes (portrayed by Christopher Plummer) hunts down Jack the Ripper, I haven't watched a Sherlock Holmes movie in well over thirty years. As a kid, I enjoyed watching television broadcasts of the Sherlock Holmes films from the 1930s and 40s that starred Basil Rathbone. But to be perfectly honest, I don't have much memory of any of those movies, even though the image of Rathbone as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary detective has been burned in my consciousness for decades. This odd combination of clear vision backed up by almost no real memory, made for an interesting contradiction of preconceived notions while watching the most recent incarnation of Sherlock Holmes.
Going in to director Guy Ricthie's Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the Victorian era London sleuth, the one thing I kept thing was that this movie was nothing like what a Sherlock Holmes movie should be. But when I realized that I had no real concept of what a Sherlock Holmes movie should be, I managed to turn off the parts of brain that were inclined to decry the film as some sort of sacrilegious defilement of character that exists as little more than faded memories. And once I did this, and contented myself to enjoying Sherlock Holmes on a mostly visceral and seldom cerebral level, accepting it as nothing more than moving pictures meant to distract and entertain for a brief period of time, I found myself having a good time.
Downey Jr. stars as a cinematic revisionist version of Holmes. As the film opens with the sort of kinetic energy hodge podge of slow motion fighting and fast cuts that have come define Ritchie's direction, Holmes and trusted partner Dr. Watson (Jude Law), are helping Scotland Yard track down and capture serial killer Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Sentenced to death by hanging, Blackwood issues a warning to Holmes that death will not foil his sinister plans. After Blackwood's apparent resurrection, Holmes is grudgingly joined by Watson, as the two set out to find the nefarious fiend. As if things weren't complicated enough, American criminal Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) enters the picture. The woman who has repeatedly left Holmes flummoxed by love, Adler is somehow tied into the case of Blackwood, who is hatching a villainous plan to take over the world.
Playing out very much like the buddy cop movies of the 1980s and 90s, only with a 21st century filmmaking aesthetic and creative sensibility, Sherlock Holmes is like a Victorian-era version of Lethal Weapon, filtered through the lens of video game-influenced filmmaking. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, so much as it is a Hollywood thing, meaning that Sherlock Holmes isn't meant to be taken seriously, any more than it is to be mistaken for what it is--bombastically lightweight filmmaking for those who consider popcorn to be a meal in and of itself. But once you accept the film for it is, it succeeds at entertaining.
The twisting, turning story that required multiple writers to conjure up the smoke and mirrors needed to make the simplistic story seem complicated manage to put together something out of almost nothing. That's to say there's not much of a story to be found in Sherlock Holmes, as there are elaborate action sequences, with a story padded out by witty and contentious exchanges between Holmes and Watson. In fact, the movie works, not because the script is good--because it is serviceable--nor because the direction is stellar--because it can at times be distracting. No, Sherlock Holmes works because of the performances of Downey Jr. and Law, who play off each other like the best of love-to-hate-each-other cops from any of a number of Joel Silver movies.
In a move that may infuriate purists, both Holmes and Watson have been significantly reinvented for modern audiences. Holmes is a hard-living eccentric, gifted with superior intellect and observational skills, who drinks too much, can carry himself well in hand-to-hand combat, and looks like he often forgets to bathe. Dr. Watson is no-longer the stuffed-shirt observer he's long been portrayed as, but an asskicking war hero who can hold his own in a fight, making him more inclined to get his hands as dirty as Holmes. This Holmes and Watson are more like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than anything else. Both Downey Jr. and Law seem to be having fun with their parts, and it's their chemistry that carries the film, perhaps slightly more than it deserves to be carried.
Sherlock Holmes is not a great film. The story is largely forgettable, although it is packaged as being complex, and the movie itself is never more memorable than the performances of the two lead actors. At the same time, the film is entertaining enough that even though it isn't all that memorable from a story standpoint, it has been crafted in such a way that it can withstand multiple viewings. In fact, the story's inability to linger in the memory for very long works to the film's advantage, making each viewing seem like you're watching Sherlock Holmes for the first time.