WARNER BROS. PICTURES
Robert Downey Jr. (left) and Jude Law make a solid pairing as the legendary team of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Sherlock Holmes was arguably the first fictional hero to be cool in the ways we now use the word. Because he notices details the rest of us are too dim to see, because he can cross-reference those details with the immense encyclopedia in his head, he’s always the smartest person in the room. This makes him bored with the slowpokes that take up the rest of the human race; the boredom renders him detached, ironic, brittle, with no patience for social niceties, let alone romance. Fuels a nasty cocaine habit, too, when he’s not abusing the violin. We’re drawn to that brilliant disenchantment, though - the way Holmes seems too quick even for the stories he’s in.
Thus when Robert Downey Jr. was cast as the latest big-screen version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, most of us experienced an inner “yes,’’ the satisfaction that comes from a player and a role snapping together with rare rightness. Far beyond his own past scrapes with substance abuse - not to mention a 2005 album of self-penned ballads - Downey is the great mordant doubter of Hollywood cinema, with a mind and a mouth that outguns the scripts he has to work with. We pay to see Downey make a role better by respecting the parts that deserve it and hellaciously riffing on the rest. He has earned the right to his superiority, and the fact that he’s at last an A-list star is the richest joke of all.
It pleases me to report, then, that Downey brings his brain, his wit, and his gift for intelligent underplaying, even as he understands he has been hired to play Sherlock Holmes, action hero. The movie’s a Guy Ritchie affair, and in fact represents the British bad boy director’s first encounter with a Hollywood blockbuster. All that pricey 19th-century production design - the costumes, the fog, the handlebar moustaches - weigh both filmmaker and star down, but not enough to keep “Sherlock Holmes’’ from being an enjoyable holiday ride. At its best, the movie’s “Pirates of the Caribbean’’ for smart people. At its worst, it’s still 10 times better than “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’’ (2003), the last major steampunk tentpole.
“Sherlock Holmes’’ also benefits from bringing on Jude Law as a fleet, dapper Dr. Watson - decades removed from a men’s club duffer like Nigel Bruce. The movie establishes a long friendship between Holmes and Watson, one that is breaking up as the doctor moves out of their Baker Street apartments to marry. A sequence in which Holmes deduces the fiancee’s past by the jewelry she’s not wearing is a sharp bit of business and further evidence of the great detective’s lack of interest in what other people think.
The fiancée is played by the British actress Kelly Reilly, who nearly walks off with her few scenes; she gets a lot more mileage than Rachel McAdams does as Irene Adler, Holmes’s legendary lady love and a good-hearted criminal mastermind herself. McAdams is pretty and nervy and doesn’t embarrass herself in the least, but all the bustles in the world can’t take this actress out of 21st-century California.
The plot’s ridiculous; don’t even bother. If you must: The villainous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), arrested and executed for satanic practices in the opening scenes, somehow engineers his return from the dead and hatches a nefarious plot to rule the British Empire. This is stale James Bond nonsense, right down to the ticking Victorian time clock that features in the hectic climax, and no one seems to take it seriously for reasons the script itself makes clear. (Interestingly, Strong bears an uncanny resemblance to Basil Rathbone, star of 14 classic Holmes movies; Rathbone probably wouldn’t have minded playing the other side of the fence this once.)
But we’re here to see Downey ratiocinate his way in and around the movie, and Ritchie indulges him and us. A bare-knuckles boxing brawl isn’t even that far from Conan Doyle: In one of the original stories, we learn that Holmes is an adept in baritsu, a legendary Asian martial art the author totally made up. “Sherlock Holmes’’ turns the scene into muscular multiplex choreography as Holmes envisions each move he’ll make in slow-motion, then replays it in whiplash reality.
The movie only alludes to the great detective’s flirtation with the needle - “you do know that what you’re drinking is used for eye surgery,’’ Watson observes at one point - and I’m guessing that anybody who has danced as close to the fire as Downey has doesn’t relish making light of it onscreen. Instead, the pleasure of “Sherlock Holmes’’ is in the way it cannily tailors big-budget event moviemaking to its star’s unique talents. Downey never winks - he’s too much of a pro for that - but like the man he’s playing, he’s much, much smarter than the movie he’s in.