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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.

Michael Jackson:
The Interviews
Vol. 2 (2009)
. "Sherlock Holmes"

This is the oh-so-slick, super-mod update of our most famous sleuth on Baker Street, London, England--a character upon whom much film footage has been expended, and usually to the great delight of movie patrons. But, in the hands of an innovative director like Guy Ritchie, the determination to give us a Holmes and a Watson the likes of which we've never seen before is, rather, a challenge to the intellectual tightrope to which much tradition is anchored. You walk it at your own risk, so beware. Personally, I'll take more Arthur Conan Doyle and less Guy Ritchie.

A filmmaker of few but distinguished titles ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Revolver," "RocknRolla"), Ritchie has little to no sympathy for his American audience's ability to understand the thicket of UK accents, especially under the virtual blast of the high paced, clipped dialogue he's prone to. While the comedy and satiric aspects come through to inveterate stateside fans, one can only wonder how much his audience would grow were he to tone it down a bit. One may argue that his "Sherlock Holmes" is somewhat Americanized in speech, but the degree of comprehension is still an issue as Robert Downey, Jr. returns to the accent work he developed for "Chaplin."

Brit Jude Law, as Dr. Watson, has no such difficulty, of course. But, as effortless as the two leads make this casting of iconic literary figures, the directorial desire to "explore" the relationship--which no doubt concurs with the studio's desire for a socko team to promote--results in an equality that appears to go a line too far. Gone is the Watson as the faithful chronicler of his friend's exploits, clear in his understanding of a secondary role. But, though the departure from tradition may come as a shock to some, it's a matter of taste and flexibility of acceptance for those who've read Doyle and/or seen many of the movie versions.

This version also brings us two bonnie boys of 1891 who can fight, and the degree of their physical skills has never been so large a part of the Holmes--let alone the Watson--bag of tricks. With as much physical violence as has been staged here, including a Holmes' freestyle ring bout against a semi-giant in order to exploit just that thing we never knew about him, a fan might wonder if the famed Holmes intellect is in any way compromised. But, no, the battle of wits mythology that the most famous detective in all of literary fiction is known for isn't lost on Ritchie and his screenwriting team of debuting Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham ("Invictus").

Yet, herein is another characteristic of this "updated version." There's so much cleverness going into the detecting, so much astute "observation" that makes him appear to be a clairvoyant, and a similar level of astounding feats from the villainous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, "RocknRolla," "The Young Victoria"), that the final revelations of who did what to whom comes in a torrent that defies following and its own vaunted superiority of logic.

But, one thing we ask from the start. Is Holmes up against his old and most prevalent nemesis? Could Blackwood be Moriarity? We hope so, because there should never be more than one such demon from the dark side. In some versions of the detective's casebook, Dr. Moriarity is revealed to be more than a vicious villain but a genius who wishes to prove his superior intellect over our hero's. Here, he has that intellect going, but in a one-dimensional weighty performance by Mark Strong, he's a pure demon from hell.

Showing up and adding glamour with sexual tension to the story about two bachelors is Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a gorgeous though married lady from the colonies who once outwitted Holmes and won his grudging respect. With her spicy sauciness in the mix, it's relevant that she's no longer married, so it might seem that her help in the case is, in the context of Downey and Law, a bit of foreplay.

It's 1891 and, after seeing to it that cult-leader Lord Blackwood, who espouses the destruction of Britain, is captured, and after witnessing his execution by hanging, there comes a hint of the supernatural--that he will reappear. As impossibilities nourish our chef of crime, Holmes takes the warning seriously and is ready when the prophecy comes true. He must now anticipate this most tricky villain's moves before the murderer kills again.

Composer Hans Zimmer ("The Dark Knight") gets into the Ritchie vibe with stark and challenging textures of instrumentation. Violins to relate to Holmes own instrument, then in combination to raise the heartbeat, accordians, klezmer, etc. Not sure, but did I hear a Zither in there, as well?

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Looking back on the Holmes canon in film, my all-time favorite is the series done with Jeremy Brett in the lead role. No one, I feel, has better captured the hermetic quirkiness of the oddball savant, which Brett so well related to from his own strange impulses. The once-a-week episodes went a long way to suggest the singularity of the subject, his times, his enemies, his proclivities, his mastery of his surroundings. Doyle was well served.

For that, Brett's interpretation remains for me the most convincing and original take on Doyle's creation-the definitive one. But, if I had to pick a second choice it would go to Downey. There's something in the spirit of the guy that makes him so companionable and watching him go at it is always an experience with a degree of joy. Lately he's been on a role ("Iron Man," "Tropic Thunder") but as the chief purveyor of an updated homage to the author, Downey is uncontested in his uniquely appealing way.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Well written
This review will influence me to skip this movie
Site rating: 10

I am a devoted Conan Doyle fan and fan of the late Jeremy Brett. This new movie is an insult and reeks of Hollywood's poor taste. Shame on Robert Downey who I thought was better than whoring himself out.

                                                           ~~ Susan May 
[Ed. note: Now, Susan, I wouldn't go quite that far. Probably seemed like a worthy challenge to him.]

I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, and revisit Doyle's sagas whenever the mood strikes me. Yes, I really enjoyed Jeremy Brett as Sherlock, also, but am looking forward to a new, more virile take on the character, to aid in introducing him to a new generation, and to kick up the excitement while keeping the spirit of these great stories.

                                                           ~~ Mary M.
Well written
Site rating: 1
                                                           ~~ Dave H.

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Robert Downey, Jr.
This is the sleuth, Sherlock Holmes?
Skinny and muscular may be more faithful to the character than previous incarnations.

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