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Josh Reviews Sherlock Holmes!

Ever since Snatch back in 2000 I’ve been waiting for Guy Ritchie’s next great film.  Finally, just squeaking in before the close of the decade, it has arrived: Sherlock Holmes.

As you’re all probably very well aware, Sherlock Holmes stars Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson, and represents Mr. Ritchie’s reinvention of the Holmes mythos.  Though perhaps reinvention is entirely the wrong word, as in many respects Ritchie & his collaborators have stripped away a lot of the baggage that the character has accumulated over the years (and over many, many, many film and TV depictions) and brought Holmes & co. a lot closer to their original literary origins in the prose of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I am most pleased to report that this new film is an absolute delight.

Let’s begin with the cast.  Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast as Holmes.  The intelligence, roguish arrogance, and manic energy that Mr. Downey Jr. has brought to his best roles is in full evidence here.  His Holmes is a man just-on-the-edge of psychosis.  He thinks so much faster than the ordinary man that, when his intellect is not engaged by a difficult case, he hits a wall of boredom that borders on desperation.  Downey’s depiction brings this almost dangerous aspect of Holmes’ personality to the forefront — one never knows quite what this man is going to do next.

A lot of reviews have, I felt, needlessly spoiled the clever way in which Mr. Ritchie & his collaborators have brought to life Holmes’ faster-than-belief thought processes, so I won’t go into detail here.  I’ll just say that it’s an engaging device that serves as an excellent storytelling tool.  It also connects this version of Holmes to the world of the super-hero (I’m reminded of the visual method in which Sam Raimi illustrated Peter Parker’s faster-than-the-eye Spider-Sense in the first Spider-Man film) and this is not a complaint.  With his incredible intellect, Holmes is a super-hero in many ways, and the way in which Ritchie & co. don’t shy away from these pop connections is part of what makes the film so relentlessly entertaining.  But more on that in a minute.

Jude Law is also perfect as Watson.  I’ve always respected Jude Law as an actor, but frankly it’s been quite a while since I was really taken by one of his performances.  (I might have to go all the way to his standout role in the otherwise terrible A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.)  Law’s Watson is no goofball, no bumbling idiot as the character has often been played.  Rather, Law’s Watson is tough, intelligent, persistent, and incredibly loyal to his friend Holmes — a man who seems to drive every other human being around him to absolute distraction.  Law’s Watson is the essential second half of Sherlock Holmes, the man without whom Holmes would certainly be lost within his own psyche.  It’s a pleasure to see the pair played as total equals.  I was also greatly pleased by the amount of humor that Mr. Law brings to the role.  I’ve known that Robert Downey Jr. could play comedy, but the twinkle in Law’s eye throughout the film keeps an essential heart and lightness to the proceedings.

Of course, what’s a hero without a villain, and the stupendous Mark Strong dazzles as always in the role of Lord Blackwood.  In the film’s opening, Mr. Blackwood is apprehended by Holmes and Watson and hung for his crimes.  That doesn’t seem to stop him.  I’ve been blown away by Mr. Strong’s intensity and charisma in every role in which I’ve seen him (Syrianna, Body of Lies, Stardust) and those qualities serve him extremely well here.  He brings an intruiguing charm to this villain, preventing Blackwood from becoming a boring “heavy.”  No, this character is electric, and he commands the screen whenever he appears.

The final piece of the puzzle is Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler.  She’s sexy and funny, and is a good fit with Downey Jr. and Law.  She’s great, though I can’t say she’s quite so perfectly cast as those two gentlemen.  (After having seen the film, I couldn’t possibly imagine two other actors as Holmes and Watson in this film, but I’m not quite sure I could say the same for Ms. McAdams.)  She also gets a bit too damsel-in-distressy for a woman who is described as having twice outwit Holmes, but that’s a fault of the script.

Other than that complaint, though, I really loved the script for this film.  It’s verbose (this movie is filled with characters — and actors — who really love to talk), and as thoroughly complex and twisty as a good Sherlock Holmes mystery ought to be.  But Sherlock Holmes is a film that makes sense, and when the explanations do come all the pieces seem to fit together nicely.  When Blackwood’s mysticism entered the story, I was a bit worried that the film would take the easy way out by explaining some things as magic (as if that’s any sort of explanation), but I needn’t have worried.

The whole package is tied together by Guy Ritchie’s confident direction.  Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch were both intense, fast-paced action-filled films that were populated by characters spouting mouthfuls of dialogue, and Mr. Ritchie brings that same style to bear here.  It’s a bracing wake-up call to these characters and this universe.  Sherlock Holmes is a smart movie that is also a heck of a lot of fun.  There are several engaging action set pieces, and even when characters aren’t fighting (and there aren’t nearly as many fight scenes or explosions as the trailers might lead you to believe), he keeps things zipping along with great energy.

I should also mention the terrific score by Hans Zimmer.  There are several catchy motifs that recur throughout the film, and a lot of interesting instrumentation choices: violins, banjos, accordions, and more.  There was something about the score that reminded me of the classic score for Carol reed’s The Third Man, and that’s a high compliment indeed.  (Click here to read an interesting interview with Mr. Zimmer on his score for Sherlock Holmes.)

The film sets itself up for a sequel nicely (making clear what challenge awaits our hero next in the same way that the closing moments of Batman Begins did — and hmm, there’s another comparison to a super-hero film…), and I for one cannot wait.  Let’s go, fellas!  The game’s afoot!

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