Ritchie's 'Holmes' Swings on Attitude, Atmosphere

Directed by: Guy Ritchie, Runtime: 128 minutes
Grade: B+

One of the side-effects to an actor emerging in our modern box office climate is that they're usually offered unique ex post facto parts, ones nearly as compelling as their stardom-creating roles that we might've not pictured them in. Viggo Mortensen, following the Lord of the Rings films, became David Cronenberg's right-hand man in his gangster flicks A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, while Leo DiCaprio, by hook or by crook, caught Martin Scorsese's eye after he became "King of the World" in Titanic. Robert Downey Jr.'s rise, however, is his second-coming; after a stint of popularity in the '90s and a crash out of sight, he performed a phoenix's flight in the spit-perfect Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, leading to his rejuvenated leg up as Tony Stark in Iron Man. Following that blueprint of secondary jobs, he's now embodying a role I would've never imagined for him: Sherlock Holmes.

For that matter, director Guy Ritchie also seems an odd fit for the mystery-solving mastermind, with his twitchy, over-caffeinated tone set in the musty alleyways of Victorian-era London. It sounds, well, a bit bizarre; Downey Jr.'s on-edge, quirky talent dropped in the middle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's universe by way of a cinematic tone mirroring Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Somehow, out of the chaotic mess that this picture could've become, Ritchie has assembled a brisk take on the character that's poised and intoxicating, aided by chic musical scoring and a magnetic eye for smoky visuals. Just don't go in expecting much more than a lengthy blend of mystery, character chemistry, and frenzied antics from the film's wired actor/director one-two punch.

As Holmes lurks around a dark corner amid gothic London architecture, he describes how he's going to take out an opponent. A vision of his brutish actions match his speech about floating ribs, paralyzing vocal chords, and the quickness that he knocks out his opponent, photographed nice and slow so that we can see what he's doing. Then, like the crack of a whip, we see the sequence take place at real speed through quick, sharp motions, showing that the detective can also carry himself amid fisticuffs. Though seeing a calculated guy like Holmes might seem a bit off-kilter from the Basil Rathbone or Peter Cushing style of demure ace detective, he's actually made a particular fighting style, bartitsu baritsu, famous for its usage throughout Conan Doyle's novels. This Holmes, Downey Jr.'s Holmes, is disheveled, manic, aggressive, more than a little unhinged and genius aplenty. And his quick-reflex, bare-knuckle spats fit right in with Guy Ritchie's vision of his thoroughly peculiar mannerisms.

The story, which carries a dash of The Hound of Baskerville's supernatural intrigue, offers an interesting slant: after Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) solve a mystery involving ritualistic murder, they're called back on the case when the convicted and hanged "sorcerer" behind the murders, Lord Blackwell (Mark Strong), comes back from the dead. As they hunt for answers to his unlikely revival, they discover -- through Holmes' detection -- that he's plotting something dire against the city of London. Granted, the story's not really all that much to shake a stick at and suffers from a bit of "franchise start-up" syndrome, but it's enough of an intriguing framework to hold our focus on the picture's draws. Which are, essentially, to soak in Holmes' detection methods, get wrapped up in the thrilling action sequences, and indulge in the back-and-forth dialogue between the two case-solvers and Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a renowned thief and Holmes' only real weakness of the opposite sex.

Characters are the backbone here, particularly the dynamic struck between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. For all intents and purposes, each of the actors mostly lean on their inherent dramatic allures for their performances; Downey Jr.'s wide-eyed, medicated Holmes spits out quick dialogue in a slightly tailored version of the actor's frenetic disposition, while Jude Law's Dr. Watson could've easily been his character from either The Talented Mr. Ripley, Closer, or Alfie with a period costume and fake mustache slapped on him. When the two of them are on-screen together, acting out playfully suggestive and, at times, flirtatious one-upmanship, it's hard not to get enough of their electricity -- almost like watching an old married couple. And it continues even when Rachel McAdams shimmies into the mix, who, as Irene Adler, offers little in dramatic range beyond a slight clash between her edginess in Red Eye and her coy sweetness from The Notebook.

What makes Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes enveloping is the rendering of a comic-book style London environment for the sharply-paced momentum, dark and dingy like the panels from a Batman book but sporting fine costume design and electric scoring from Hans Zimmer that give it verve underneath the bog. As outlandish action sequences dominate the screen, such as one involving a tall, strapping henchman to Lord Blackwell, heavy chains, and a shipyard that ends with too easy of an abandon, the experience in soaking in Holmes' environment becomes enough to overlook a few tweaked balks at realism. Watching Downey Jr. raid slapdash apothecaries and a pig-butchering farm for clues and such give us memorable sequences amid a few suspenseful chills, all dense with grimly enthralling detail through Philippe Rousselot cinematography -- nodding in generous spats to his work on Interview With the Vampire.

Through musty environments and gussied-up interactions between the main characters, as well as their jocular banter with the likes of Dr. Watson's fiancé (Kelly Reilly) and head Scotland Yard detective Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), Ritchie takes us through a connect-the-dots mystery in Sherlock Holmes made compelling by its blinking focus on realism and the mystical. That's the core to the story's meek intrigue, in watching Holmes piece together Lord Blackwell's mystery with what may or may not be a rational explanation. We're not sure if this environment's even open to the unexplainable or the supernatural, which adds an element of frustration and deception in curious crackerjack minds. In the end, it's the way Ritchie allows the conclusion to colorfully unfold that's important, not so much the conclusion itself; he's solved the big mystery by etching out a new, modern place for Sherlock Holmes' casebook, in an electrifying fashion that satisfies more like the page-flipper suspense books of our modern era instead of Conan Doyle's more profoundly intriguing novels.


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