Ben Kenigsberg reviews Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes heightened his sensory powers by mainlining cocaine, so maybe this hyperactive reimagining—starring Downey and directed by Ritchie—isn’t such a bad fit after all. A prologue sequence forecasts a shrill exercise in revisionism, pitched somewhere between Wild Wild West and the early Jeunet-Caro films, but the minute Holmes begins using his powers of observation to neutralize his opponents in extreme-contact sports, it’s difficult not to grin. In its own bombastic way, the movie stays true to the conception of the character as antisocial and OCD, holed up in an impossibly cluttered flat. It even finds a surprising amount of poignancy in Holmes’s friendship with Watson (Law) and pas de deux with Irene Adler (McAdams), though not enough to make it resonate beyond the theater doors.
On paper, the project owes as much to Scooby-Doo as Victorian literature (the fart jokes are arguably unnecessary), and without Downey, it would probably be totally disposable. But he may be the only actor with the right mix of charm and mania to thrive in this deliberately cartoonish context: His Holmes seems as bemused insulting Watson’s fiancée (Reilly) at dinner as he is electrocuting heavies with Rube Goldberg contraptions. It helps that Ritchie is working with the discipline of genre constraints, as opposed to indulging in his usual gangster posturing. The mystery, involving an executed lord (Strong) who dabbled in the black arts, is as preposterous as the material that inspired it. The movie may be an elaborate goof, but as entertainment, its value is elementary.