Being smart kicks ass. That’s the message I gleaned as a boy from Sherlock Holmes’s adventures, and Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t have to tack that message on the end in a “Knowing is half the battle” PSA, either. Holmes solved nearly all his cases by paying attention to every seemingly insignificant detail and knowing more than any human possibly could about any subject 19th century London could lob his way — sometimes chemistry or forensic science, but usually just random trivia like what kind of soil could be found in the warehouse district or who’d shagged who in some minor noble lineage. But, in the latest onscreen appearance of one of film’s most recycled characters, Holmes takes down a big old Cockney thug, more than once, by plotting out his moves, chess style — right fist to left patella — in Matrix slo-mo, before executing them in real time. And my first though was “Wait a minute — being smart doesn’t kick that much ass.”
I don’t presume to know how it feels to posses Holmes-caliber intellectual capacities; I’m just saying I can’t recall ever reading an end-of-case wrap up that just consisted of Holmes describing how he whooped some dude in a bar fight: “Then I whanged him in the Johnson with a coal shovel! Case closed, old chum.”
But this ain’t your Uncle Nigel’s Granada Television adaptation of “A Scandal in Bohemia.” This is America’s Sherlock Holmes: Robert Downey Jr., unlike far too many U.S. actors, never even tries to fake a British accent, and the character as written via committee and directed by a relatively subdued Guy Ritchie, sports a raffish popped collar and knows that the most effective thing to do with a big, fat book is quite often to use it to smash somebody’s face open. The same goes, practically, for sidekick Dr. Watson (Law), “adventuress” and love interest Irene Adler (McAdams), and brand new heavy Lord Blackwood (Strong), all of whom spend more time kung-fu fighting than matching wits after evil magician Blackwood appears to have risen from the dead to continue a series of murders vaguely reminiscent of Jack the Ripper. Combining creepy magic cults and London serial killers, the script is closer to an adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell than any Holmes story I remember reading, but the movie still very nearly works because the screenwriters, Ritchie, and, Downey Jr. all understand the details of Holmes’s character, even as they turn him into a 21st-century action hero.
Holmes’s insufferable arrogance, depression, drug abuse, and heavy dependence on Watson are all done better than you’ve got any right to expect from an audience-pandering would-be cash cow. Downey Jr. and Law, wonderfully cast, absolutely nail the Holmes-Watson relationship , and watching them play with the roles is so much fun you nearly don’t notice when the film runs completely off the rails. But it does, unfortunately, in a really obvious, Holmes-disarming –a-doomsday-device-before-the-clock-runs-out kind of way that basically reduces the world’s greatest detective to MacGyver in a waistcoat. Also, McAdams would only make a believable action hero if pitted against an army of Make a Wish kids, and something like 10 minutes of screen time is devoted solely to an artless sequel setup. Even so, if I saw this movie as a kid, I definitely would’ve headed straight for the library afterward, and that’s a decent- enough recommendation for a big, dumb American blockbuster about a bipolar British cokehead.