Can anyone recall that five-year span from 1996 to 2001 when Robert Downey, Jr. abused drugs, tussled with the law, and nearly flushed his illustrious acting career down the toilet? It’s now difficult to believe such a sidetrack even occurred. Downey could contribute only to his existing franchises (including the super-charged Iron Man series and its might Marvel offshoots) and still stay employed for the better part of the pending decade.
Granted, that isn’t happening. Sensing his current white-hot status in the ever-fickle film industry, Downey chooses to stay busy while still remembering that quality triumphs quantity. Yes, he single-handedly rescued Marvel’s nascent film slate with Jon Favreau’s popcorn blockbuster. But he also brought measured pathos to Joe Wright’s The Soloist, and scored a well-deserved Oscar nomination — his second — for his calculatedly gonzo Tropic Thunder performance. Now Downey launches what looks to be another lucrative franchise (financially as well as creatively) by stepping into the storied shoes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective, Sherlock Holmes, for Guy Ritchie’s inspired interpretation.
The game is already afoot as the film opens, with Holmes (Downey) and his trusted yet beleaguered colleague Watson (Jude Law) closing in on a London serial killer named Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, who continues the scene-stealing trend he started in Ritchie’s enjoyable RocknRolla). Captured, convicted, and eventually hanged, Blackwood creates supernatural confusion for Downey’s sleuth when he apparently returns from the grave and embarks on a vengeance mission against the powerful men that shut him down.
Ritchie’s Holmes likely won’t please purists raised on Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, but it isn’t made for them. Much like Star Trek, Casino Royale, or Batman Begins, it fashions its timeless fictional characters for a breakneck thriller meant to electrify modern audiences. And the resulting adventure is a vigorous, intricate whodunit drunk with the thrill of the hunt. I can’t say whether it’s canonical or not, having never read Doyle’s novels. But I know it’s entertaining as any picture I’ve seen this year — and more intelligent than anticipated, thanks to Tony Peckham and Simon Kinberg’s buoyant but brainy script.
The screenwriters share an ear for flirtatious, impassioned dialogue, which Downey and Law zealously embrace. That’s right, I said Downey and Law: Ritchie’s Holmes is a 21st century bromance that teems with combustible male chemistry. Downey’s detective is an attention-craving, arrogant, amoral, and brilliant wild card of a character. Law’s sidekick captures the impatient aristocrat hiding beneath the polished actor’s pedicured surface. And we savor every minute we spend in their company. The Watson-Holmes vibe burns so bright that a third leg to the Victorian love triangle, personified by Rachel McAdams, feels wholly unnecessary. The poor starlet, wasted in her role, probably thought she was signing on for Downey’s love interest, not realizing that part belonged — in a not-so-subliminal sense — to Law.
Maybe Ritchie will carve out more space for her character in the sequel, teased in this film’s closing scenes with the promise of Holmes’ legendary adversary Professor Moriarty finally entering the picture. Based on Ritchie’s heady, exhilarating introductory chapter, I’m more than eager for another ride, provided it’s as mentally stimulating as this.
Elementary, my dear Rachel.