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Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

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Sherlock aficionados and hardcore canonistas, beware. This take on the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle creation is considerably different than what you have seen in the past. Director Guy Ritchie, who cut his teeth on Brit gangster films, has gotten his hands on the sleuth and has updated him, tweaked him, and reinvented him for a modern audience who may not be terribly in tune with the character in his classic form. The end result is a film that should satisfy the masses, annoy the nitpickers, and ultimately be embraced for being a flat-out entertaining film regardless of some individual grievances. At least I hope that is how it will go.

I am not familiar with Sherlock Holmes at all. I have never read any of the stories nor have I watched any of the films, although I think I may have seen clips here and there over the years and I am pretty sure that I even own one or two of the films on DVD. My closest ties to Holmes would probably be those episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard would assume the mantle with Data as Watson on the holodeck. In other words, I am nowhere near an authority on the character. I am content with my impressions of him that have that have seeped into pop culture consciousness.

This new take on Holmes plays partly as a redressed '80s buddy film (a la Lethal Weapon) and partly as superhero adventure (think Batman and Robin, but not the Schumacher debacle), while still remaining true to the character's roots, albeit with a touch of modern bromance sensibilities.

The first half of the film sees the famous sleuth prevent the murder of a woman in a black magic ritual being performed by Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Following the arrest of Blackwood, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) retreats to his home and a room that is strewn with all manner of gadgets by the restless detective. It seems this is the way he usually acts between cases, although this time it is compounded by Dr. John Watson's (Jude Law) impending exit from their shared home for married life.

While their bickering continues, their lives become more complicated following the execution of Blackwood. Shortly after he is laid in the family tomb, he is seen alive and well exiting the tomb. This brings Holmes back into the action as he is determined to learn the secrets of Blackwood's resurrection, not to mention what the dead man may be up to. This leads to a second half which steps up the action as we get a rapid series of revelations regarding Blackwood's return and the secrets behind his devious plans.

In the midst of all this, introduce Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). She is a former (future?) lover of Holmes, not to mention an intellectual equal and a master thief. She comes to town with work for Holmes that relates to Blackwood. However, there is definitely something more to her presence and who she is working for.

It is an intriguing story, if not a terribly deep one. While the story is engrossing, this film is less about the plot than it is about the execution. The goal is to entertain, not necessarily stimulate. Fortunately, the film delivers based on a combination of the actors' talents and chemistry and director Guy Ritchie's style, even if it is toned down a bit for a more mainstream audience.

The weight of the movie is carried by the dynamic duo of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Much of the film's success can be measured by the chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. The two get along marvelously, trading barbs and working together to the benefit of both their abilities. The two have a natural rapport that makes their deep-rooted friendship all the more believable. Downey brings a relaxed, yet intense, charisma to the role, successfully combining the character's flaws and talents in one package. As for Law, he does a fine job as the straight man who cares deeply for his friend, and while he reluctantly goes along with Holmes's plans, he is not above getting a shot in himself.

On the other side of the coin is Rachel McAdams, who I feel is a good actress, she just does not work all that well here. She has the presence and the right look, but she seems out of her element. I did not really notice it until I sat down to write this, but she did not really seem right for the part. Who should have played it, I do not know. She just seemed rather blank and lacking in charisma.

Guy Ritchie, directing a script that was not his own for the first time, reins himself in. In doing so, he is showing some growth as a director. Instead of trying to be flashy and "cool" he allows the energy and flash to grow organically out of the story. Sure, it may be embellished a bit here and there, but it did not stand out as flash for the sake of flash. This is decidedly a step up from his other recent films and I like what he brought to the table.

As for the writing, it is quite good and better than I expected. I liked how the action was amped up, but the intelligence factor was not ignored. In particular, I loved the fight sequences that demonstrate how fast and far ahead Holmes is thinking. If he is doing that in a fight, think about what he is doing when he doesn't have that time limitation.

Bottom line. This is a fun movie, no doubt about it. It is fast paced, looks great, has a decent story, good humor, and generally good performances. This is a movie that will send you home with a smile on your face and wondering what they might do in a sequel.

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