First there were remakes. Then there were ‘reimaginings’. Now comes the ‘reinvention’.
There’s surely a drinking game to be played while watching the bonus supps for Guy Ritchie’s bold take on Baker Street’s most famous resident – the ‘r’ word uttered every five minutes to remind us that this is Sherlock Holmes, but not as we know him. “I was attracted to this because we could reinvent an iconic British figure,” enthuses star Robert Downey Jr. Intriguing sentiments, potentially dire consequences…
Thankfully, Ritchie’s first stab at a super-sized studio pic is far from the disaster some predicted. OK, so traditionalists will argue it’s simply a Hollywood bastardisation of a beloved literary icon. And they’d be right, tonally at least.
In fact, Ritchie’s unashamedly boisterous buddy-movie makeover will likely have Basil Rathbone nuts scrunching up their deerstalkers in protest. Not necessarily a bad thing. This Holmes isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, making for a refreshing take on Sir Conan Doyle’s legendary case solver.
Labelling this as a reinvention rather than a reboot means there’s no stodgy origin story to plod through, Hans Zimmer’s thumping (deservedly Oscar-nominated) score throwing us straight into the action as Holmes and Dr Watson ( Jude Law) hunt down Masonic murderer Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, imposing as ever). After a pre-credits apprehension sees the occultist marched off to the gallows, Blackwood soon rises from the grave on a mission to seize control of the British government.
It’s a fitting introduction to the reinvented Holmes, the story’s black-magic conceit providing a compelling counterpoint to our hero’s reasoned intellect. And yet, while his (super)powers of deduction remain intact, Downey Jr is resolute in his mission to banish any thoughts of the great detective’s previous screen incarnations – painting him as a reclusive yet streetwise “weirdo”, equally at home in posh hotels as he is bare-knuckle boxing in grimy fleapits. It’s an audacious portrayal, but the star’s skewed charm wins through.
Then there’s Watson – a gentlemanly foil to his acerbic ally (“The yin to his yang,” as Jude Law puts it), here upgraded from bumbling sidekick to capable partner-in-crimefighting.
Law – more charming than he’s been in years – cuts a dash as the good doctor, a distinguished war vet trying to settle into an easy life with brideto- be Mary (an underused Kelly Reilly). Yet it’s his chemistry with Downey Jr that surprises the most, buoying the movie with infinitely entertaining bromantic banter and odd-couple bickering. Like so many great double acts, it’s a partnership that works much better on screen than it ever did on paper.
The same could be said for Guy Ritchie’s appointment at the helm of a $90m tentpole. Keeping his usual stylistic flourishes to a minimum (see the Holmes-vision fight sequences), Ritchie wisely focuses his efforts on keeping the action moving at a lick and capturing Victorian London in all its grubby glory. From the boarding houses of Baker Street to the smogfilled shipyards lining the Thames, the Big Smoke of yesteryear has never looked so authentic.
And yet, as engaging as Ritchie’s movie is, it’s not without its shortcomings. Chief among them is Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler – the New Jersey lady-thief famous in Holmes lore as the only woman ever to outsmart him. No evidence of that here, though. McAdams is suitably spunky, but her Adler – either underwritten or over-edited – is left with little else to do except supply the token dose of oestrogen and introduce the shadowy nemesis of Holmes 2.
Not that Adler is the movie’s only stumbling block, mind. There’s the often-clunky CG (at odds with the rich attention to detail displayed elsewhere) and the contrived climax atop an underconstruction Tower Bridge, which sees Downey Jr struck down with a nasty case of the Jessica Fletchers as he rushes to tie up the mystery’s loose ends.
Still, gripes aside, Ritchie’s reinvention holds up, mostly thanks to his team’s spirited approach to giving the traditionally stuffy sleuth a good kick up the arse. Their gusto extends to the BD-exclusive ‘Maximum Movie Mode’ – an immersive Picture-in- Picture commentary that sees the dapper director guiding us through his period actioner in person, while branching ‘focus points’ give insight to everything from the painstaking reconstruction of 19th-Century London to the development of Downey Jr’s ‘Bartitsu’ fighting style. Ritchie and Co’s enthusiasm is infectious, right through to the movie’s sequel-baiting, “Case reopened” ending.
This may not be the Holmes you know, but – purists be damned – it’s one you’ll have a riot getting acquainted with.
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