Downey at his best as Holmes

2010-01-04 00:00

THE great comfort of the figure of Sherlock Holmes is that he reveals order out of chaos; menace and murder are banished from polite society through science and reason. The enduring image of the famous sleuth is of a deerstalkered, pipe-smoking professor-type who sniffs out clues as if by magic.

That’s altogether too stuffy a character for the post-Indiana Jones, Die Hard generation, and director Guy Ritchie reinvents the pairing of Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and his sidekick Dr Watson (Jude Law) as a more earthy, virile pair of mates.

What takes the most getting used to is the feeling that Dan Brown has been let loose on the script. The action starts with Watson and Holmes saving a woman from a sacrificial altar and fighting off a sinister gang and capturing their leader, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). He believes himself to be a lord of darkness and master of the black arts, with delusions of taking over England, reconquering its lost colony of America, and from there, the world. His case is strengthened when he comes back to life after being hanged. His hairstyle and long black leather jacket are Goebbels-like, and while it is no doubt effective, I don’t think the evocation of Nazism, anachronistic as it is, is necessary.

Once the scene is set, the film takes a more playful turn. Holmes, coke addict that he was, is shown in all his dissolute, dishevelled, anti-social glory. But lest anyone underestimate him, he shows his pugnacious side in a bare-knuckle boxing match that gobsmacks the assembled crowd who’ve laid money on the big guy.

Before long, however, the job of saving the world begins in earnest, and Holmes faces the added distraction of an old flame (Rachel McAdams) whose intentions, while nefarious, are not clear until the very end.

The pairing of Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law is inspired. To see their names on the credits is to think “What a silly bit of casting!” Had the film been a serious-minded period piece they would probably have been a disaster. As it is, it’s a light-hearted romp through a world that borrows bits from Victorian London, Gotham City and the mystical secret societies of Dan Brown.

The sleuthing process is a game pursued with wit, and none of the CSI seriousness that has become de rigueur in forensic detection. The highlight, though, is to see Robert Downey Jr back to his best.

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