Sherlock Holmes gets a makeover
Director Guy Ritchie's London underworld films come to mind in his take on the Baker Street sleuth
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Robert Downey jnr, Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong
Running time: 128 min
Age restriction: PG13
IN the usual Guy Ritchie style, Sherlock Holmes races along at a breakneck pace, filled with audacious stunts and sarcastic dialogue that adorns an ingenious plot. It's very much in the idiom of Ritchie's best films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and most of it is set in the sleazy criminal world of Victorian London.
However, this version is not based on one of the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the character in the late 19th century. Instead, movie producer Lionel Wigram, who believed it was time to give detective Sherlock Holmes a contemporary makeover,created a graphic novel to test his idea on the public and see if it raised any interest.
It did, and Wigram wrote this screenplay with two screenwriters, including South African Anthony Peckham.
The film was produced by Joel Silver, who made the Die Hard and The Matrix film series, which gives us fair warning that Sherlock Holmes is no svelte, plush-lined, period melodrama.
The film's historical setting forms a backdrop to a cutting-edge crime thriller so close to Ritchie's usual style that you almost expect actor Jason Statham to emerge from the shadows.
The computer-generated effects are amazing and the pace is relentless. The film's chief villain, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), is a man obsessed with seizing power by occult means. He's a devious necromancer whose character is based on that of Aleister Crowley, who was fascinated with "the Dark Arts" and known as "the Beast".
It is an extremely clever ploy to base this story on real people and actual events that took place in the Victorian era, at the time the fictitious Sherlock Holmes was solving his famous cases.
The mix of pulp fiction with the stark realities of Victorian life plays out in a city made of superbly recreated CGI images, showing us London as it looked then. It makes a vivid setting for an edgy thriller.
One of the key locations, for example, is Tower Bridge, but the gimmick is that it is still under construction. Victorian London was prosperous, breaking out of its old barriers and flexing its muscles as a new metropolis. The context of this story is almost as exciting as the plot, which is filled with double bluffs and triple crosses.
Ritchie rings the changes on the Sherlock Holmes legend, discarding the familiar props, like the deerstalker hat and the Meerschaum pipe, to give us a Holmes who is more like a '60s dropout, who uses recreational drugs, knows oriental martial arts and rejects society's rules. This Holmes would have gone to Woodstock.
In a similar way, the fussy, prissy old Dr Watson, played by Jude Law, has morphed into a witty, handsome dandy with an eye for the ladies.
Ritchie also gives us a femme fatale, briefly described in the books, but in the film she becomes the fascinating temptress Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) who is as smart as Holmes. She is also somewhat attracted to him.
It all adds up to a superior crime thriller with the unmistakable signature of a Ritchie film which, I guess, will please his many fans.
It certainly kept me amused, although about halfway through I did wonder why Ritchie had even bothered with the Sherlock Holmes template.
He doesn't add a great deal to the context nor to the energy of this thriller, and Robert Downey jnr makes the title character so fey and caricatured that he comes across more like Houdini or maybe even Willy Wonka.
So much time is spent deconstructing the Holmes image that you wonder why they did not just invent a new sleuth and start with a clean slate.
It is one thing to revive a popular character as they did in Batman Begins, but when they virtually demolish the traditional character and rebuild it quite differently, their intentions seem a bit confused.
But that's a minor academic quibble and I think that this new Holmes is bound for further glory.
At the end of this film, we are promised a showdown sequel in which the super-sleuth takes on his archenemy Moriarty. I reckon that one will be worth waiting for.