Sherlock Holmes is one of the all-time great fictional characters. He is impossibly Byronic and impervious to the charms of the fairer sex; impossibly misanthropic, what with his disdain for almost everyone in the world but his assistant, Watson; and impossibly brilliant, what with his near-psychic ability to pin down the past, present, and sometimes future of total strangers based merely on the state of their wardrobe.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle couldn't have known it, but the chilly remove and observational distance he embedded in Holmes' literary DNA makes him the perfect wireframe over which almost any story can be overlain.
I think Conan Doyle might well love what director Guy Ritchie has done with the world's greatest detective. Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is a much greater departure from the director's cinematic past, which tends toward tongue-in-cheek depictions of modern urban criminals (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch) than it is from the Holmes of Conan Doyle's stories. Purists will moan — that's sort of their job — but the spirit of Holmes is thoroughly intact in this dynamic, vigorous adaptation.
There's a fine line Ritchie walks here with these familiar characters: this Holmes is nerdy enough to be respectful to the beloved source material but geeky enough to express its affection the only way geeks know how — with a winking snark and post-postmodern metacommentary.
But not a lot of that, either. The suggestion of steampunk remains just a suggestion. And hints that the Harry Potter franchise has more than a passing influence on this update remain only hints. Most of what feels modern here is in how the story is told, rather than in the story itself.
Scripted by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg, Holmes opens mid-escapade, à la an Indiana Jones movie — we're thrown right into the fray, the narrative, and the relationships of the characters.
There's no setup: you sink or swim as you navigate what turns out to be something of a collapse of the partnership between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law), the latter of whom is about to move out of their digs at 221B Baker Street to get married.
Both Downey Jr. and Law are having so much fun here with such iconic characters, and they're having it in ways that are both uniquely their own. It must be hard to defy the decades of tradition Holmes and Watson come laden with, even if those traditions were the inventions of previous interpreters of Conan Doyle. In Ritchie's version, Holmes is a slob, and he has a boozy little romp with the shady Irene Adler, played by Rachel McAdams. Watson, on the other hand, is a true partner, an equal of sorts, to the great detective.
It must be pointed out, however, that the film's plot — about a nefarious lord (Mark Strong) who wants to bring a peculiar brand of religious fundamentalism to bear in the British government — is probably not something Conan Doyle ever would have invented. But, Sherlock Holmes, with its combination of a little magic, a dash of wit, and a lot of action, is a perfect 21st century reinterpretation of the classic sleuth.