A Smarty-Pants Sleuth Aims For An Action-Hero Hit

Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams in 'Sherlock Holmes' i

Hard Target: Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes update (with Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams) looks to put a bullet in the idea of the deerstalker-wearing detective — though who Ritchie's hero is, exactly, remains something of a mystery. hide caption

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Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams in 'Sherlock Holmes'

Hard Target: Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes update (with Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams) looks to put a bullet in the idea of the deerstalker-wearing detective — though who Ritchie's hero is, exactly, remains something of a mystery.

Sherlock Holmes

  • Director: Guy Ritchie
  • Genre: Adventure, Action
  • Running Time: 128 minutes

Rated PG-13 for violence and action

With: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams

Two quasi-literary film fantasies — fresh takes on deductive forensics and Faustian bargains — arrive this weekend on the big screen. Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes has clues, Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has magic, and both have Jude Law.

Actually, the similarities don't end with Law. Both films also feature dwarfs, 19th-century atmospherics, and near-identical establishing shots of St. Paul's Cathedral. Probably means that I shouldn't have seen them on the same day.

Not that anyone's likely to confuse them: Where Imaginarium is elegant, thought-provoking and intriguingly weird, Sherlock Holmes is just rock-'em-sock-'em, commercial and exhaustingly loud.

Ritchie, who usually directs drug-fueled, sense-assaulting gangster flicks (Snatch, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), tackles the Arthur Conan Doyle detective franchise by turning a sleuth known for cerebration and observation into an action hero, and putting him in a story that's a cross between The Da Vinci Code and Fight Club — complete with the former's pentagrams and the latter's extreme boxing matches.

You didn't know Sherlock Holmes could box? Well, as played by Robert Downey Jr., he's a gym-toned prizefighter, throwing punches before cheering yobs in the sort of down-'n'-dirty London venue once used for bearbaiting.

"Why?" you ask, your sleuthing senses tingling. Partly because of Conan Doyle's interest in a protagonist with a mix of physical and intellectual gifts, but mostly, alas, because of Ritche's interest in playing camera tricks — first freezing the action as his hero analyzes in slo-mo how best to pulverize a rival pugilist, then speeding up once Holmes has set his strategy, so the teen male audience can get its bone-crunching jollies in real time.

Sequences set atop a still-under-construction Tower Bridge are similarly presented as much for the director's benefit as for the sleuth's (or the story's). There are explosions, fires, fogs and much dangling from on high. Also a comely femme fatale (Rachel McAdams), a back-from-the-dead villain (Mark Strong) who hatches an indecipherable but presumably nefarious plot, and Law's amusingly annoyed Dr. Watson, who's engaged to a strong-willed blonde, but who bickers with his sleuthing partner as if the two of them were an old married couple.

Perhaps because Law and Downey are far too smart for this material — and also because a visual stylist like Ritchie hasn't a clue as to how else to make language comic — the two leads have been allowed to speak their lines as if they were channeling not Conan Doyle, but his contemporary Oscar Wilde. It doesn't really work, but it's of a piece with the rest of this overproduced, underthought trifle.

In short, Ritchie's come up with precisely what you'd expect of him — a pumped-up, anachronistically modern Sherlock Holmes designed for the ADD crowd. Expect a sequel. Or six.

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