When I was nine my father handed me a book that would alter my future forever. This book? A hard-cover, red, un-assuming volume of Sherlock Holmes stories. I was hooked and became a devotee of the third order — a true “Sherlockian” (someone from America who is a fan and scholar of Sherlock Holmes). Holmes was my obession for years – I collected more copies of the stories, I read thick analytical books, I learned what a gas-lamp was and spelled color with a “u” because that’s how they did in the Holmes stories.
So when the first news of Robert Downey Jr. taking up Holmes’ role I was excited. There’d be a couple attempts at re-starting the Holmes legacy after the death of Jeremy Brett – but none got too far. Then I saw the first pictures and was confused. I was afraid that my beloved hero had been reduced to a comic book characture. I entered the film on Christmas day equal parts excited and afraid.
I was not disappointed. The Holmes that blazed across the screen was powerful, human, funny and true to form. Many have commented about Holmes’ physicality, but Holmes was always an impressive fighter. In the first novel “A Study in Scarlet” Watson lays out everything he knows about Holmes in an attempt to understand what Holmes might do for a living. The list included: “is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.” Watson himself is no old, tottering man. He had just returned from war when he meets Holmes. The two were in their prime.
Doyle often left the actual fighting to an off-chance remark from Holmes. Such is the case in The Final Problem where Holmes appears at Dr. Watson’s home with bleeding knuckles.
“I took a cab after that and reached my brother’s rooms in Pall Mall, where I spent the day. Now I have come round to you, and on my way I was attacked by a rough with a bludgeon. I knocked him down, and the police have him in custody..”
That said, the film is also highly enjoyable for non-Holmes fans. The plot is tightly wound (even if the crimes themselves seem haphazard). Even small things (like Holmes & Watson’s dog) are carried through the entire adventure. There’s enough action balanced with humanity to keep the film interesting for all involved. The friendship between Holmes and Watson is a palpable platonic bond that defies logic (must like the stories).
I also loved the set designs. They had the beautiful grungy look that made them realistically Victorian without losing the artistic edge. The action sequences were intense without being vomit-inducing (as many modern films have become). I also loved the editing and shot selection (even the playful shot that starts with a “this side up” box and then moves to realize the box is, in fact, upside down).
Robert Downey Jr. was phenomenal as Holmes. He had enough of the cold, calculating persona trimmed with the anti-social without being unlovable. We can see that Holmes does have feelings, but that he doesn’t allow those to get in the way of his actions. Science/Reason is his main love (though Irene comes a close second).
Another delightful twist on the story is Mary. She is, in fact, in the stories (The Sign of Four), but as a client first. Her performance in the hospital hallway was chillingly awesome and added a strong emotional point without being over the top.
My heart also thrilled with the open story line for the next film — I’m ready Mr. Richie.
(Photo: Lin Pictures/Warner Brothers)