*Sherlock Holmes (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Kimball's Peak Three, Tinseltown
Sherlock Holmes is one of literature's great characters: impossibly Byronic, with his superior intelligence and imperviousness to the fairer sex; impossibly misanthropic, with his disdain for almost everyone but his amanuensis, Watson; impossibly brilliant, with his near-psychic ability to pin down the past, present and sometimes future of total strangers based merely on the state of their wardrobe.
The chilly remove and observational distance Sir Arthur Conan Doyle embedded into Holmes' literary DNA make him the perfect frame onto which almost any story can be overlain. And he couldn't have known it in 1887, but Conan Doyle created — with his serial stories — the first action franchise.
In this adaptation, Conan Doyle might well love what Guy Ritchie has done with the world's first consulting detective. Though Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes has more in common with the director's other films — which tend toward tongue-in-cheek depictions of modern urban criminals — than with the Holmes of Conan Doyle's stories, the spirit of Holmes remains thoroughly intact.
Ritchie finds a balance that hasn't been achieved by similarly new takes on familiar characters: This Holmes is nerdy enough to be respectful to the beloved source material, but geeky enough to express its affection with winking snark and post-postmodern metacommentary.
But there's not too much of that. Most of what feels modern here is in how the story is told, rather than in the story itself.
So Holmes — whose script is by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg and Lionel Wigram — opens mid-escapade, à la Indiana Jones: We're thrown right into the fray, into the narrative and into the relationships between the characters. You sink or swim as you navigate what turns out to be a collapse of the partnership between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law), as the latter is about to move out of their digs at 221B Baker St.
You're left to wonder about Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the slightly shady but very classy American woman Holmes has clearly crossed paths with before. Any small knowledge of her character that Conan Doyle readers may bring into the film won't quite suffice to explain it all. You've seen the trailer: Sex and alcohol are clearly involved.
I remind any and all objectors to the nature of the relationship between Holmes and Adler, that others before Ritchie's gang have filled in gaps the author left open. For instance, Manly and Wade Wellman, in their 1975 novel Sherlock Holmes' War of the Worlds, posited that Holmes was shacked up with his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, a beautiful young widow, not the kindly old lady we all had assumed her to be.
This story — about a nefarious lord (Mark Strong) who wants to bring a peculiar brand of religious fundamentalism to bear in the British government — is not something Conan Doyle ever invented. But it's not unlikely that he could have. And with its combination of a little magic, a dash of wit, and a lot of action, it seems well suited to this Holmes and this Watson and our early 21st-century world.
Both Downey Jr. and Law inhabit their iconic characters in ways that manage to feel uniquely their own and perfectly faithful to tradition at the same time. Purists may moan — that's sorta their job — but this is a dynamic, vigorous interpretation.