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Review: Sherlock Holmes

Boys will be boys
By MICHAEL ATKINSON  |  December 22, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars


Sherlock Holmes | Directed by Guy Ritchie | Written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg, and Lionel Wigram | with Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, and Eddie Marsan | Warner | 128 minutes
In its own way an ideal holiday blockbuster for the moderately educated, the new light-footed overhaul of Sherlock Holmes is three parts self-satisfied mixer to one part hard storytelling, and if anything, the film's popular trailers should have deterred you from expecting strong drink. But everything's relative — in this case to CGI robots and aliens and tidal waves and Scrooges, compared with which Guy Ritchie's zippy meta-period thriller comes off almost eggheady. Almost. Doped up on video-game tropes and bullet-time slowdowns, it wants to have its rummy fruitcake and brawl with it, too, recasting the brainiac Holmes as a buff man of action (who enjoys bare-knuckle fisticuffs as much as his violin for diversion), and cutting the character's intellectual-mystery solving with standard superhero battles and chases, as if betting on our impatience with a pulp narrative that doesn't blam, whoosh, or jitter.

Ritchie and his team will probably win their wager. That said, the movie makes the most of its compromises. Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes is a hedonistic wreck plagued by his restless intelligence (not unlike Downey, who's barely able to suppress his neurotic instincts in things like Iron Man) and distracted from his bad habits only when he's dashing after "a case" — which here means figuring out how an executed serial-killer aristocrat (Mark Strong, looking too much like Matt Lauer) could come back from the grave and initiate an elaborate and predictably preposterous plot to take over the British Empire. Battle of wits and all that, except that between the sniffing out of clues it's mostly a mano a mano brannigan with various henchmen, everyone crashing through 19th-century laboratories and racing through cobblestone alleys.

The good news is that Ritchie, even as he packs in the explosions and last-minute rescues for the schoolkids, doesn't ignore the shank meat of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's concept — the esprit enjoyed by Holmes and Dr. Watson as thinking Englishmen. So Downey and Jude Law have relaxed fun limning out an uncloseted bromance seething with bi-sexual grudges and longings. Watson is in the process of "moving out" and getting engaged to a woman, and like the permanent bachelors in Gunga Din, Holmes tries to manipulate his partner into returning to the fold. Holmes has his femme as well — the ridiculously adolescent Rachel McAdams, as a master thief — but no one enjoys each other's company as much as the two boys do. This isn't subtext — we're supposed to smell the sexual tension ("Don't get excited," Holmes whispers when fishing in Watson's pocket) and be as amused as the guys are by their predicament, stuck as they are between an eternal boyhood chasing villains and a respectable life of marriage and afternoon tea.

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