Not even Sherlock Holmes could make much sense out of the overplotted, murky mess that is Sherlock Holmes, although Arthur Conan Doyle's legendarily brainy detective would probably never buy a ticket to a movie as elephant-footed as this one (a Hitchcock picture or maybe Chinatown would have been more his speed).
This new reimagining of Sherlock Holmes, which was directed by Guy Ritchie (Snatch, RocknRolla) and produced by Joel Silver (The Matrix, Lethal Weapon), was made for people who have neither the patience nor the attentiveness that made the detective so formidable. The setting may be old London (rendered impressively grimy and bustling), but the mood is all smash-pow-bang - it's Fight Club time on Baker Street.
The sort of giant-budget blockbuster (like Wild Wild West and Godzilla) that bears the distinct scars and stitches of too many studio-imposed suggestions and ideas, Sherlock Holmes renders what should have been a captivating Victorian-era mystery with quasi-supernatural undertones (like the excellent Dan Simmons novel Drood) close to unintelligible. Right from the requisite opening action setpiece, Ritchie paces every scene at the same furious pitch, so the movie starts out in fourth gear and never downshifts. That may be fine for those who found Speed Racer fun and exciting. Others may be wondering what, exactly, martial arts and bullet-time photography are doing in the middle of a Sherlock Holmes picture.
Those anachronisms are the point, of course: The film aims to bring a dusty literary hero to hip, contemporary life. But why are these high-concept movies almost invariably so little fun to watch? The only real entertainment in Sherlock Holmes comes not from Ritchie's elaborate action sequences or the outrageous stuntwork but from a much more old-fashioned source: the performances by Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as his trusty assistant Watson.
Downey, still channeling the super-powered charisma he brought to Iron Man (how did this actor ever fall off the radar?), turns the detective into a rascally hero who drinks too much, flirts too much, enjoys a bit of bare-knuckle fighting from time to time and is still smarter and more observant than anyone in the room. Downey relishes the opportunity to gnaw on a British accent - at times, he lays it on so thick you literally can't understand what he's saying - but the actor is clearly having a good time, and he's the sort of performer with the gift to share that fun with the audience.
Working opposite Downey also frees something in Law, who turns Dr. Watson into a veritable superhero (or at least a respectable sidekick). Although he often comes across as a studied, self-conscious actor, Law is loose and energetic here and more than holds his own in his constant banter with Downey (I'd be curious to know how much of their dialogue was improvised). Although a subplot hinges on Watson's engagement to a young lady (Kelly Reilly) and Holmes falls for a client (Rachel McAdams) who has hired him to find "a missing midget'' - a case that leads to all sorts of demonic evildoing - Holmes and Watson bicker and argue like an old married couple and fight off their enemies like Batman and Robin.
Sherlock Holmes is a bloated, enormous mess, and I'm pretty sure the entire last half-hour exists mainly to set up the sequel, but the actors make it lively and watchable anyway, as if they simply ignored all the mayhem around them on the set and decided to just have a good time. Good idea, fellas.
Sherlock Holmes opens in theaters on Friday, Dec. 25.