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Enjoying new Sherlock Holmes is elementary
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Enjoying new Sherlock Holmes is elementary

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Sherlock Holmes Opening December 25

I'll admit upfront I was highly worried about director Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes. The trailers made it look like some sort of Victorian Pirates of the Caribbean knock-off, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary detective reduced to being just another comic book superhero quick-wittedly facing off against a banal series of supernatural bad guys.

Can I just say how delightful it is to having one's preconceptions proven deliciously wrong? Not only is this new take on the iconic character a rollicking good time, the screenplay by first-timer Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham (Invictus) and Simon Kinberg (Jumper) is surprisingly literate. In short, this movie somehow does Doyle proud, and unlike other revisionist takes on the detective gone horribly wrong (like 1985's Young Sherlock Holmes), this one gets so much right enjoying it is positively elementary.

It helps that someone, somewhere (and I'm guessing it was producer Joel Silver, of all people) managed to reign in Ritchie's hyperactive tendencies and force him to tell a cohesive tale from start to finish. Gone are the annoyingly flashy camera and editing tricks that marred recent efforts like Revolver and RocknRolla. In their place is a refined delicacy, allowing for the plot to flesh itself out organically and at its own measured pace. Even better, for the first time since Snatch, the director lets his actors act, giving them space to craft three-dimensional characters that are intriguing and engaging to the audience and not one-note figures wallowing in their own tiresome machismo.

The plot concerns 221B Baker Street detective Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his trusted aide Dr. Watson (Jude Law) as they investigate the mysterious resurrection of the villainous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a Machiavellian killer they helped send to the gallows. Making things interesting is the arrival of American thief Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the only person to ever best the super sleuth at his own logical game as well as the only woman he's ever allowed himself to love. On top of that, Watson is on the verge of marriage, which puts the pair's working relationship in serious jeopardy.

Okay, I will admit seeing Sherlock Holmes as a man of action is a bit disconcerting, as his sudden skill with martial arts is something no other television or cinematic version has ever hinted at before. That said, Doyle's books do suggest his detective isn't incapable of standing up for himself physically, and his knowledge of ancient Asian arts are mentioned quite a few times. But those who think Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett are the actors who inhabited this character best will have trouble with the way Ritchie depicts him here - his efficiency with firearms and his fondness for fisticuffs are things old-school purists aren't going to appreciate.

For my part, had the script not been so intellectually centered, I probably would have been amongst those crying foul. Thankfully, Sherlock Holmes is very much a thinking person's action movie, and for all the explosions and gunshots (of which there are admittedly a few too many), the fact that the plot is so reliant on its heroes using their brains to solve the crime reduced my unease to virtually nil. Better, I love mysteries where the clues are all there for the audience to piece together themselves, and while answering the questions here aren't exactly difficult, doing so is still an immense amount of fun.

I will say that McAdams never registers as strongly as I would have liked her to, and the fact that Holmes' greatest adversary (next to Professor Moriarty, of course) is reduced in the end to a simplistic and cliché cowering female is more than a tiny bit annoying. I also think that there are moments of extraneous exposition not involving the detective that inadvertently slow things down a bit too much - the scenes of the conspirators hatching out their dastardly deeds are unnecessary.

But as problems go, these are relatively minor. Downey is just wonderful in the lead; he and Law have a playfully homoerotic chemistry that's positively marvelous. Strong makes for a good bad guy, never overplaying his hand and keeping Blackwood an intriguing enigma almost all the way to the end. As for the supporting players, both Eddie Marsan (as put-upon Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade) and Kelly Reilly (as Watson's prim fiancée Mary) make the most of their limited screen time, each making a far greater impression than I'd imagine anyone would expect them to.

I found Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes to be pure bliss. From Hans Zimmer's (Frost/Nixon) superb score to Philippe Rousselot's (A River Runs Through It) smoothly enchanting cinematography to Sarah Greenwood's (The Soloist) eye-popping production design, everything about this film reeks of class. But it is the combination of the literately engaging script and the full immersion of the actors into their respective characters that makes this effort sing, and if this is what it is going to be like for a game to be afoot in the new millennia, here's my vote for Warner Bros. to keep this case open.

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