Sure, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective has already been done many times. But not by Robert Downey Jr. He adds his fiery, restless energy to a part that could easily have turned fuddy-duddy in the hands of a more laid-back actor. But Downey makes the part lively, even electric. And Jude Law plays his sidekick, Dr. Watson, with just the right understatement: a quiet companion that’s the perfect foil for our restive, obsessive, overly-attentive detective.
The case is a dark one, dabbling in the occult: a nefarious, conscienceless member of Parliament heads a secret society that thinks of itself as smarter and better-equipped to govern than everybody else (a blatant prejudice that would be laughable, except they’re deadly serious). Already, five have died, and they intend for the body count to escalate dramatically.
Holmes is part recluse, part scholar, part scientist, part pugilist. Yes, he indulges in bare-knuckled boxing in the dark alleyways of London, analyzing opponents and somehow masochistically enjoying the physical punishment preceding his analysis. He has one love in his life, the incredibly beautiful but equally manipulative Irene (Rachel Mc Adams). According to Watson, she is the only one who has ever outsmarted Holmes — twice — therefore maintaining his fascination for her. Watson, for his part, is trying to romance a seemingly normal young woman named Mary, but the first time Watson meets her, she gives him permission to share his presumptions about her. He’s so soul-exposing accurate that she winds up throwing her glass of wine in his face. He was just glad it wasn’t the glass, as well.
Other than that little tension between Watson and Holmes, they’re a perfect pairing. They both love solving the puzzle of a mystery, but at the same time, are quite comfortable with the physical danger, even violence, that often accompanies pursuing the bad guys. Lots of harrowing escapes, reversals of fortune, clues doled out abundantly enough to include both real and false leads — just the kind of case the amateur sleuths out there will enjoy vicariously solving.
Yes, London in the Industrial Age is a sooty, bustling, cosmopolitan place, just the sort of context where a dissolute brainiac like Holmes can excel at his arcane but valuable craft. This “Sherlock Holmes” is refreshingly devoid of cliché. And not even once does he say, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.