The Hard Sleuth
Guy Ritchie envisions Sherlock Holmes as an investigative action hero
Sherlock Holmes, the character, has been portrayed in as many ways as there are actors who’ve played him--that is, 75 different men in 211 different movies. He’s been played as a stuffy, middle-aged Victorian detective, a cocaine-addicted headcase, a teenage boy at boarding school, a Nazi-fighting war hero. But director Guy Ritchie’s new treatment of Sherlock Holmes casts him in yet another new light: a brilliantly eccentric and troubled, yet lovable, adventure hero who has more in common with James Bond (Connery era, that is) than with the tall, gaunt, plaid-capped character that most associate with Holmes.
Ritchie sets the movie's pace early, depicting a shirtless Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) in a boxing ring with a much larger opponent. Sweaty, bloodied, and fatigued, Holmes is about to forfeit the match. He has a change of heart when his opponent spits at him, sparking a sociopathic rage in Holmes that helps him mentally choreograph the world-class ass-kicking he gives his formidable foe.
From there it’s scene after scene of witty banter between Holmes and his faithful friend Dr. Watson (Jude Law), who in this Holmes is less a sidekick and more a put-upon buddy, inexplicably drawn into his friend’s exploits. The two find themselves embroiled in an investigation of a black-magic cult that wants to send London into a tailspin that’ll help the sinister Lord Blackwell (Mark Strong) come to power over Parliament, and eventually, the world. Lives are lost, Holmes and Watson barely escape death and dismemberment multiple times, and viewers are periodically reminded by Holmes’ monologues of deductive logic that this character is more than just another brawny action hero--he’s also a troubled, disorganized genius with a penchant for getting into trouble.
The plot is not the strongest point in the movie, which is more interesting when considered as a sum of its multiple scenes than holistically. It’s easy to get lost in the photographically gorgeous reproductions of Victorian-era London, the thrill of the well-choreographed fight scenes and explosions, the simple pleasure of consuming an old-fashioned mystery tale, and the witty, chummy, brotherly bickering of the two main characters, whose relationship some speculate hints at a possibly homosexual attraction between Holmes and Watson.
Critics of this Holmes complain that Ritchie, who says he wanted his Holmes to remain true to origin, has taken too many liberties with the character, taking him out of the realm of the mature and studious and turning him into a bit of a charismatic brawler. But the image of Holmes as a bookish, scholarly detective is one that was created by Hollywood. The true Holmes character, as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was, as scholars point out, a student of martial arts, a moody young man, an untidy bohemian, and a clever eccentric. He may not have been quite the action-adventure hero that Ritchie makes him out to be--but part of the beauty of Sherlock Holmes as a character, and part of the reason he’s been such a popular cinematic subject, is that he is such a flexible hero.