With Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material. 128 minutes.
Do kids read “Sherlock Holmes” stories these days? There’s a real question whether the target audience for this holiday popcorn movie is familiar with its central character. Tricked up in a story that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could never have imagined, this new SHERLOCK HOLMES nevertheless tries to remain true to the characters and the result is entertaining in unexpected ways.
Start with the unusual casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as the legendary detective who relies on the powers of observation and deduction. This is a more robust and sometimes more slovenly Holmes than we’re used to, but he’s tapped into an important aspect of the character. Since the world holds few mysteries for him, Holmes is bored most of the time. His longing for a baffling case is akin to his cocaine addiction (which is overlooked here). Holmes is jaded and craves sensation. Downey shows a flair for underplaying not previously seen.
Jude Law’s Dr. Watson may come as a surprise to those expecting Nigel Bruce (from the 1940s films) but is much closer to Doyle’s conception. Wonderful as Bruce was, his Dr. Watson was a doddering foil for Basil Rathbone’s Holmes. Law’s Watson is much younger, and smart enough that Holmes would appreciate his friendship. Given that his performances are often cool and off-putting, it’s interesting seeing Law playing someone likeable who serves as the audience’s surrogate in this world.
The present case owes more to “Harry Potter” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” than Doyle. A series of murders is linked to a secret society using magic to plot against England. While there are moments where one might think the filmmakers have taken leave of their senses, they do not forget that this is Sherlock Holmes’s world. Eventually there are rational and logical explanations for everything we see. Be patient.
Those unfamiliar with the stories may be surprised at the presence of Rachel McAdams as a Victorian femme fatale. However, her character of Irene Adler is faithful to the stories. The mysterious woman who intrigued Holmes – perhaps the only one – is a complex figure whom the movie only partially explains. Her role here, along with Eddie Marsan’s Inspector Lestrade and passing references to Sherlock’s brother Mycroft and the nefarious Professor Moriarty, suggests the filmmakers do know their Holmes. However much they’ve relied on big dramatic set pieces, the intent is to adapt Holmes for contemporary viewers. If this succeeds at the box office, a sequel is obviously in store.
The purists may cringe but those willing to accept this as simply another in a long line of reinterpretations of the Holmes and Watson stories will find much to enjoy, from Holmes coolly planning out his fisticuffs to his eccentric behavior at his lodgings at 221B Baker Street. This may not be a “Sherlock Holmes” for the ages, but it is an entertaining diversion. It might make Sir Arthur occasionally blush but he wouldn’t cringe in embarrassment.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.