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Robert Downey Jr.'s Wry Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is another critique of filmmaking—if only by example. As over-emphatic as one might expect from the ham-fisted Guy Ritchie, this resurrection of the world's most famous detective is a dank, noisy affair—punctuated by occasional pratfalls and soigné bits of British understatement—unfolding in a gloomy London that seems a bootleg copy of A Christmas Carol's CGI set.

Arthur Conan Doyle's detective was, in essence, a master of the 19th-century scientific method, who used empirical observation and logical deduction to make sense of a chaotic universe; it's inevitable that his 21st-century avatar would be a buff superhero. In addition to being the smartest man on earth, the new Holmes is a master of barehanded fisticuffs—using strategies derived from lightning physical calculations. As played by Robert Downey Jr. with gloomy insouciance, Holmes is also something of a Bushwick boho. He wears shades and, rather than the traditional deerstalker hat, favors a porkpie job with the brim turned up.

Hollywood logic has further dictated that the movie be a bit of a buddy film, even a love story. Dr. Watson (Jude Law, batting his eyes a bit less than usual) is a good-looking bloke whose impending marriage drives Sherlock half-mad with jealousy. To complete the triangle, the unscrupulous queen of crime Irene Adler (played with game enthusiasm by Rachel McAdams) is hopelessly gone on the detective. "What if we trusted each other?" she plaintively suggests.

The wartime Holmes and Watson (Basil Rathbone and fumfering Nigel Bruce) battled the Axis, as well as the Spider Woman. A few near-subliminal references to terrorism notwithstanding, there's little attempt to make super Holmes topical. On the other hand, there's at least a residual trace of the detective as master of deductive logic. The movie opens with a raid on a Satanic ritual and, although it appears to go totally supernatural, is actually (and nonsensically) revealed as . . . something even less credible. The real mystery, however, is Downey. Whatever his personal demons, this actor seems immune from self-contempt; at least on the screen, he brings a wry conviction to even the most hackneyed part or ridiculously written role.

jhoberman@villagevoice.com

 
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