This isn't your father's "Sherlock Holmes." Nor is it your grandfather's or great-grandfather's, for that matter.
No, despite its relative fidelity to Arthur Conan Doyle's source novels, this is a "Sherlock" for the 21st century. That sounds annoying, but it's not. In fact, it's very good, and it could have been great if it weren't for its often mechanical and lumbering plot, which, after culminating in a "Scooby-Doo"-esque explanation of the mystery, amounts to nothing more than an elaborate tease.
The movie begins in the thick of a chase. Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law), somewhat aided by Scotland Yard's finest, are rushing to stop the nefarious Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, who really should play Vlad Dracula if Hollywood ever gets around to adapting Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian") from sacrificing yet another victim in the name of his brand of black magic. Our heroes apprehend Blackwood, who will soon meet his doom at the gallows, but not before he issues some ominous warnings.
Blackwood hangs and is even pronounced dead by Watson, but the satanic blueblood is soon seen rising from the grave to enact his twisted plot to rule the world ... mwahahahahaha!
If only the screenwriters relished the possibilities of having a devil-worshipping megalomaniac as a villain as much as we do. Blackwood could have been a great villain, and he's given some juicy moments in the beginning, but he ends up receding to the background for one stretch of the movie too many, and Holmes is denied the formidable adversary he deserves.
Instead, what do we get? Holmes contending with quasi-romantic interest Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an American con artist and thief who's said to be the only person to outwit our noble detective. McAdams, who is usually a welcome sight, is here only to advance the plot and to satisfy the studio's desire for a starlet, but she just gets in the way.
After all, Holmes' heart belongs to Watson, and it's quite enough that Watson's fiancee is around to exacerbate the tension between our heroes. Yes, everything you've heard or read is true: this "Sherlock" is essentially a romance, or "bromance," in the parlance of our times, and neither the script nor the actors shy away from it.
Downey and Law have such natural chemistry, and the movie's at its best when the two are onscreen together. Downey is no Basil Rathbone (but, really, who is worthy of that comparison these days?), but his take on the detective is compelling in its own right. His Holmes is a needy, obsessive, impractical neurotic who excels at bareknuckle boxing and can be very, very dashing when necessary. Meanwhile, Law's long-suffering Watson is no mere foil. He's a brilliant, blunt and gruff compulsive gambler with a proclivity toward violence. These two need each other, and both the characters and the movie suffer when they're apart.
"Sherlock Holmes" also excels when in fight scenes and chases. Director Guy Ritchie stages the action with wit reminiscent of the Connery and Moore James Bond movies and the first two "Indiana Jones" installments. There's even a hulking baddie played up for comic effect. Ritchie handles it all with class and zest worthy of his forebears.
I should admit, though, that I went into "Sherlock" with somewhat low expectations because Ritchie was the director. No matter how hard I've tried, or how much some trusted friends have recommended his work, I just can't get into his earlier movies. His usual hyperkinetic style comes off as busy and cloying, more Baz Luhrmann than Martin Scorsese. But here he keeps his impulses in check. The result is a movie rich in visual style and panache, but also patient enough to actually let you absorb what's going on in the frame, particularly the triumphantly grungy and foggy production design. I'm glad Ritchie will be back for the sequel.
And yes, there will be a "Sherlock" sequel (possibly in 3D). After this first installment's hefty box office take and its plot's repeated references to a certain evil professor lurking (literally) in the shadows, it's elementary, my dear reader.
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****
("Sherlock Holmes" is rated PG-13. It is available for purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD and for rental from on demand services.)