Not since "I Love You, Man" have two (allegedly hetero) men been so deeply, unapologetically in love as Holmes and Watson in the new "Sherlock Holmes." "Old Cock" and "Mother Hen" they call each other, respectively, lest there be any confusion about the pecking order. And in keeping with the cinematic traditions of the bromance, the alpha male, Holmes, expends a fair amount of energy sabotaging his sidekick's pending nuptials, when he's not too busy trying to save the world.
Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes echoes Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House, the irascible, Vicodin-gobbling TV doctor based on the legendary sleuth. Laurie has been brilliantly playing a riff on Holmes for six years, any "House" fans that haven't yet realized it will immediately recognize him in the new film. Luckily, Downey is talented and charming enough that we soon forget about House and join Holmes on a ripping adventure through the streets of London.
Screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg do a nice job of dancing around Holmes' legendary drug use. In a movie like "Sherlock Holmes" that strives to launch a franchise, a coked-up hero is unacceptable. So instead we get sly jokes about anesthetics that won't offend those too young or dim to get them.
The movie bears all the hallmarks of a Guy Ritchie film: the quick cuts, the violence, the convoluted plot, seat-shakingly loud explosions. At times Ritchie's love of fast edits and backtracks come together to suck the life out of the story. On two occasions we see and hear Holmes plot a plan of attack in slow motion, only to watch him execute it in fast-motion a moment later. It's a too self-conscious attempt at crafting an iconic moment that backfires. And enough with the ravens, we get it -- DEATH IS IN THE AIR!
Lest there be any lingering doubts about Holmes' sexuality, Rachel McAdams is on hand to serve as his foil and love interest. McAdams is as smart and sexy as always, precisely what the role calls for, but there's not enough of her. With Jude Law's aggrieved Watson holding the key to Holmes' heart, what chance does McAdams have? Freed from the tedium of being the cad or the pretty boy, Law is surprisingly likeable, a quality he doesn't put to use very often. With any luck, McAdams' role will be expanded in the inevitable sequel, now that Watson has left Holmes for a woman.
Mark Strong plays Lord Blackwood, a murderous sorcerer with designs for Parliament that would make Guy Fawkes nod in approval. Strong, probably best known for torturing George Clooney in "Syriana," brings an almost campy brooding to the role. Whoever is responsible for his fang, went too far. It immediately calls to mind not some nefarious evildoer, but "The Big Book of British Smiles."
"Sherlock" has drawn unflattering comparisons to "Wild, Wild West" (are there any other kind?), Barry Sonnendfeld's disastrous 1999 film. It's a too-easy shot. With their late-1800s settings, steampunk-lite aesthetics and dynamic duos, the two movies' similarities are real, but not enough to dismiss "Sherlock."
Downey's latest rebirth, which started with the woefully overlooked "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," has been a great ride and a nation eagerly awaits the second installment of "Iron Man." One has to wonder about the wisdom of one actor inhabiting two franchise characters concurrently, but "Sherlock Holmes" is a different and entertaining enough role that Downey should be able to squeeze a couple of films out of each.
"Sherlock Holmes" opens Christmas Day across the country.