Quick question: What movie-making elements guarantee the success of a film?
Are they the script, the direction, the cast, the action sequences, the subject matter, or the vigorous marketing campaign?
In the case of “Sherlock Holmes, directed by maverick Guy Ritchie, it is a composite of all of the above.
Ritchie builds on the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes and John Watson series of stories first penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 19th century, likely delivering the most entertaining version of the iconic intellectual to date.
But there is also a secret formula, perhaps first suggested by Doyle himself, which Hollywood routinely returns to – the use of the sidekick.
Watson is Holmes’ pivot, destined to rein the maverick investigator back to reality, keeping him from consuming himself in endless soliloquy and thought. For Holmes, his physician friend is more than a sidekick and partner fighting crime; Watson is Holmes’ most enduring, most reliable relationship. He keeps Holmes channeled, his energies directed into the case at hand and not self-indulgent loathing.
Doyle built up Holmes as an eccentric, cold, determined, and yet slightly self-involved detective, while Watson – who chronicles and narrates most of the adventures – is suave, grounded, more in touch with 19th century London. Watson is written as a more normal and stoic member of society, acting as a counterbalance to the chaos and sheer genius in Holmes.
When I first heard that Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Holmes, I had mixed feelings. This was a role that required maturity, stability and appreciation of the original literature.
But after seeing the film, one could only deduce as “elementary, my dear Watson, that Downey was the perfect fit. As a Hollywood misfit, Downey is no stranger to rebelling against the system – his years of drug addiction and capricious behavior both on screen and off have painted him as the black sheep of the industry.
A member of the elite who is uncomfortable with his position and celebrity status, Holmes is much more concerned about being alone, away from the lurking eyes of Victorian society.
Though he has masterfully orchestrated his own resurgence as a Hollywood star in the past few years, Downey injects the tumult, despair and disillusion of his drug addiction years into the Holmes character. Holmes is troubled, moved to the unconventional, perhaps with disdain for social norms in much the same way Downey rejected the false pretenses of the Hollywood circle.
Jude Law’s Watson is the venerable and loyal friend, who snatches Holmes back from the edge and firmly keeps him on track. While both display an unprofessed admiration for each other, their battle of wits makes for very comical banter.
In fact, the magic Ritchie pulls out of a hat is to be found in the exchanges between this duo, a turn-of-the-century Victorian Batman and Robin. The dialogue between the two is eclectic, particularly when Watson demands Holmes reveal his motivations for acting so erratically as he chases a lead.
The chemistry between Holmes and Watson, beautifully delivered by Downey and Law, is reminiscent of another dynamic duo – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Tongue-in-cheek meister Ritchie, who is no stranger to directing off-the-beat films (“Snatch, “RocknRolla, “Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrel ), may have been up against a skeptical industry as he tackled his first mainstream movie.
But the Victorian London he delivers is convincing, steeped in dark tones, suggesting something sinister around the corner, which reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 classic “The 39 Steps. Ritchie effectively captures the gloom of post-Crimean War, pre-World War I, British society, with the ruling class distanced from the harsh realities of the streets.
There is conspiracy afoot, and though I will not reveal much of the plot, suffice to say that Holmes gives chase to secret societies, uncovers government complicity, and is bedazzled by new inventions that are set to change the world as he knows it.
The fast-paced action scenes are enthralling as they are thrilling, explosive, mesmerizing, and almost hurtful. Ritchie stays true to the original stories by pitting Downey as a brilliant fist-fighter, a determined tactician who measures down to the second every punch, every scuffle and every tackle.
I thoroughly enjoyed the witticisms in Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps more importantly, the chemistry between the two crime-fighting partners. However, I found the inclusion of Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler – Holmes’ former love interest and adversary – to be disconcerting. This is where Ritchie deviates from Doyle (she was introduced in just one of the classic stories, and with far less pomp and circumstance, as the “late Irene Adler ) and appears to be consenting to some Hollywood brawn to insert a leading lady.
But it is wholly contrived – her role is minor, despite the camera doting on her ravishing looks, and rather gratuitous. (And she is not to be confused with Irene Adler from “Star Trek – The Original Series, who plays a nearly catastrophic role in ensuring Hitler’s European victory.)
Nevertheless, this film was entertainment at its finest and you can be sure there will be a sequel as Holmes is yet to face off with his literary arch nemesis, Moriarty.
But not before Downey dons the golden-red suit and soars through the box office in this summer’s “Iron Man 2.