It's not surprising that Hollywood would feel the need to turn the famously cerebral Sherlock Holmes into a rib-crunching, pistol-whipping action hero who might solve a locked-room mystery by leaping out of the window and using his fists to rearrange the internal organs of anyone who happened to be walking by. What is surprising, though, is how much charm, wit, and shameless fun is crammed into every grimy, soot-filled nook of Sherlock Holmes.
It's a marked departure for director Guy Ritchie, who made a name for himself by marrying Madonna and making a bunch of movies about people with indecipherable accents shooting each other. Try all you want, but you'll never convince me that Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels isn't about a bunch of guys who visit assorted acts of violence on other guys while mumbling about pineapples. This time around, though, Ritchie's only concern is showing the audience a rip-roaring good time. He's still Guy Ritchie, so there are plenty of slow-motion explosions and close-ups of fists slamming into quivering flesh, but the hyperactive excesses are tucked inside an enormously entertaining and gorgeously designed film that'll send you out of the theater smiling about the characters and practically humming the art direction.
You want to know about the plot, don't you? I was afraid you were going to ask about that. It's little more than an excuse to move the characters from one breathlessly executed action set piece to the next. In the rather neat opening sequence, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) manage to thwart a Jack the Ripper-esque murderer who has been terrorizing London. The heroes apprehend the sinister Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) in the middle of what appears to be a satanic ritual. He is promptly tried and executed, but he gets better and begins another murder spree. It's up to Holmes and Watson to stop him, occasionally with their trademark problem-solving and observational skills but mostly by beating the Cockney snot out of everyone they meet while dodging explosions.
Complicating matters is the addition of American adventuress Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) to the mix. The only person to ever outwit Holmes, Adler's intentions are questionable, but her effect on the otherwise unflappable detective isn't. Adler only appeared in one of Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories, but she was a memorable character, and her inclusion in this latest incarnation was a wise move. She has much more to do than get rescued by the boys (though she does a bit of that, too), and McAdams plays her with an ideal combination of brainy competence and quite possibly dangerous sex appeal.
The story never becomes particularly engaging, but the pitch-perfect cast and the film's glorious art direction make up for it. McAdams holds her own with Downey and Law, and that's saying a lot. The two are fantastic as the titular detective and his long-suffering partner, and the chemistry between them makes up for the plot's many shortcomings.
These are not a Holmes and Watson that will sit well with purists, of course. Downey's Holmes is a slovenly, petulant badass who's more comfortable in the boxing ring than the drawing room, and Watson is much more than a foil for Holmes' considerable skills. This time around he's a vital part of the team, though he's threatening to leave it by performing the traitorous act of getting married. In one rib-nudging scene after the next, Holmes invests as much energy into thwarting his partner's impending union as solving the Blackwood murders. It's odd that the studio has taken issue with Downey's provocative talk-show banter about the "are they or aren't they?" relationship between Holmes and Watson, since the screenwriters went to such great lengths to gay things up.
The star of the show, though, is Ritchie's version of Holmes' London. Simultaneously grimy and opulent, it's a city in transition, a living, breathing thing marked by grand construction projects (the Tower Bridge is only half finished) and a seedy underworld teeming with cartoonish thugs and secret societies. It's an ideal backdrop for the film's bone-rattling carriage chases and comically mismatched fistfights, and it's so lovingly realized you'll want to brush the coal dust off your hands.
It's not an unqualified success by any stretch of the imagination, but Sherlock Holmes is great deal of fun if you can switch your brain off for a couple of hours. If it all occasionally devolves into a movie about people with indecipherable accents shooting each other, at least it does so with vibrant style, a weird bonhomie, and an unwavering commitment to entertaining the holy hell out of you. Doyle would hate it, but there's no reason the rest of us should.