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British director Guy Ritchie's brawling take on literature's most famous detective will no doubt disappoint traditionalists who prefer their Sherlock Holmes reserved, academic, and well-scrubbed. We never hear the phrase "elementary, my dear Watson," pass Robert Downey Jr.'s lips, and the Holmes he presents would be unlikely ever to utter it.
Instead Ritchie and Downey give us a loopy, half-mad (though still brilliant) churl, whose dependence on Dr. Watson (Jude Law) borders on pathological and who may or may not suffer from a touch of manic depression along with his well-documented drug addiction. When he does manage to leave his cluttered horde of possessions in the rooms at 221b Baker Street, he still reasons his way through most dilemmas, but pairs that reason with serious action chops. To wit, Holmes' amazing powers of deduction are put to an updated use: discerning step-by-step how to physically disable opponents mere seconds before raining the carefully considered blows down upon their heads. It's a thrilling bit of directorial prowess on Ritchie's part when he shows Holmes envisioning how the fistfights will play out before he shows them actually occurring.
These are the bits that will, to borrow an English phrase, get some knickers in a twist. The ironic thing for those who grew up adoring Basil Rathbone's characterization is that this messy, arrogant, eccentric Holmes is in many ways more true to the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle's creation than the protagonist they remember. As narrator, Watson described Holmes' apartment as "bohemian" and at least two of Arthur Conan Doyle's novels described the erudite sleuth as a formidable boxer and martial arts expert. So take that, all those who object (and I have run into many since the trailers started airing) to an "action figure" Sherlock.
Indeed, without the good fun of a fighting Sherlock, there would be little other reason to see this film. The interplay between Downey and Law, who each turn in wonderfully quirky performances, combined with spectacular visual effects also help make it worth a trip to the theater, but its disjointed mess of a plot is the last element that's going to win anyone over.
Whenever screenwriters seem at a loss for how to set up a mystery in a Victorian-era film, satanic worship somehow comes into play, and Sherlock Holmes is no exception. The MPAA rates it PG-13 for violence and "suggestive scenes" (primarily a woman in a nightgown about to be sacrificed in some unspecified ritualistic manner), but Christian parents may object to quotations taken from Revelation for little apparent reason other than amping up the chill factor.
When the nefarious Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) appears to return from the dead to bring his followers the power of the underworld, Holmes and Watson must follow a trail of circus freakery including "ginger midgets," toothless giants, and tables piled with sawn-off swine parts to discover the secret of his resurrection.
In an end that could hardly be called a spoiler, Holmes demonstrates that rationality triumphs over all and that Blackwood's evil machinations are little more than trickery. It hardly seems worth analyzing a plot so frivolous, but its basis is a wholly material worldview. Given how much dialogue makes use of biblical passages describing the beast and the heralds that will signal Armageddon, the fact that Blackwood manages to harness public fear with nothing more than advanced chemistry rings a subtle atheistic note.
Believers looking for discussion elements will know that the truth doesn't end with Holmes' blithe pronouncements, however intelligently rendered. The spiritual world presents far more threat than we see here, and though Blackwood and his followers fear only the noose, the law, and Sherlock Holmes, their dabbling in occult practices could, in the real world, have far more dire outcomes.