After Robert Downey Jr. put comic book films back on the map with Iron Man, I was thoroughly on the RDJ train.  Then I heard what his next big film role was going to be.  Another super genius with substance abuse issues.  A character who might arguably be one of the first ever superheroes.  The immortal Sherlock Holmes.  Despite everything Downey Jr. had accomplished with Tony Stark, I was still nervous about him tackling the world’s greatest detective.  Hell, how many American actors can you count that pull off a convincing British accent?  And Downey Jr. would be under the direction of Guy Ritchie.  Another man looking for a career rebirth after hitting a rough patch.  Then I saw the trailer for the film.  Holy crap!  That was all I could say.  It was everything I imagined in my head a Sherlock Holmes movie would be like, but with something extra.  An energy.  An excitement.  A PULSE.  A PULSE that Ritchie, in his early directing days, always delivered.  A PULSE in which Robert Downey Jr. thrives in.  Sherlock Holmes was the Sherlock for me.

As I’ve said in my review for the BBC show Sherlock, 2009’s Sherlock Holmes was a film that I could appreciate separately and equally with the other incarnations that followed.  As time has passed the difference between BBC Sherlock and RDJ Sherlock have grown.  RDJ Sherlock shares more similarities with the vastly underrated (Even by me) CBS show Elementary than it does with its British equivalent.  That is mainly due to characterizations and relationships.  Where Cumberbatch exudes stoic intensity, both Robert Downey Jr. and Jonny Lee Miller are playful to the point of annoyance and crazed to the point of concern.  Their brilliance seems more like the lasting side effects of some illegally imbibed elixir.  And that is what I like about them, Robert Downey Jr. more so.  Predictably, Downey Jr. brought to the forefront more of Sherlock’s drug issues.  His darker stuff.  And he brought back his physicality.  Physicality most people were unaware of at the time.  Some of the so-called Sherlock Holmes purists saw the trailer and quickly said it was a dumbing down and shoehorning of action into a Sherlock Holmes film.  Unbeknownst to them, Downey Jr. did his homework.  Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in several stories that Holmes had some fighting skill.  It is turned up in this film, however, it comes from a place of fact.  It more or less showed that Downey Jr. wasn’t sleepwalking through an action role.  He was totally making it his own. 

I put a picture of another actor at the top with Robert Downey Jr. because of his importance to Downey Jr.’s performance.  Jude Law’s portrayal of Dr. John Watson is one my favorites in any incarnation.  Downey Jr.’s humor is undeniable, but it works more so because of how Law plays off of him and sets him up.  On the BBC show and the CBS show, we are introduced to Watson and Holmes as they are introduced to each other.  In Sherlock Holmes, however, we meet Watson and Holmes in the middle of their relationship.  So, Law and Downey Jr.’s chemistry not only has to work but feel like its been working for a while.  A task Law and Downey Jr. completely did for me.

This film was also the first time I really began to recognize the awesomeness that is Mark Strong.  He kind of fell into the background of the large ensemble cast of the first film I saw him in, RocknRolla.   Strong here gets to play a villain that felt like a true threat to Holmes.  Lord Blackwood is equal parts creepy and entertaining.  It would have been easy to fire off the infamous Moriarty in the first film, which they do hint to.  However, I think it was more important to establish Holmes and Watson, while still giving them an enemy that is still a great foil.  Strong helps accomplish that.  The one place I think cast chemistry fails is between Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler.  I’m not a McAdams hater, and I don’t think McAdams is horrible in this.  I just felt that McAdams’ energy did not and probably could not equal Downey Jr.’s.  It is more a criticism of casting than anything.  Adler is supposed to be Sherlock Holmes’ kryptonite.  McAdams just didn’t have enough charm or charisma to make me buy their relationship being an actual problem for Holmes.

I was so happy for Guy Ritchie after this film came out.  You have to understand, Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are two of my favorite films.  Watching him make the film Swept Away with his ex-wife Madonna was like seeing a close friend of yours date that girl you know is gonna f%$k his life up.  Revolver has a small cult following, but is an overly convoluted mess.  RocknRolla gave me hope that the Ritchie I loved was still in there somewhere.  Sherlock Holmes really got him to flex his cinematic muscles again.  The set pieces, the style, the humor, and the action scenes are terrific.  The criticism for their being so much action is akin to the criticism JJ Abrams received for his Star Trek films.  To me the action does not take away from the mystery Holmes is trying to solve at all.  Every action sequence is always in service to the story.  And the bit that Ritchie uses to show Holmes working out his movements before actually doing them was a clever touch that I had never seen before. 

Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, for some odd reason, gets a cynical bum rap that I wholeheartedly don’t understand.  Not only is his version of Holmes one of the most accurate to the books, the film is fun, entertaining, PULSE pounding, and underratedly smart.  There isn’t any time to waste then…widen your gaze…watch it…if you dismissed it…watch it again…then tell me I’m wrong.

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  1. Btw – I thought "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" was even better than the first Holmes movie. It actually DID "widen their gaze," opening out from London into Europe, with premonitions of WWI already in the air (which, of course, was the "east wind" that Holmes feared and knew would happen in the books…). Although, like you, I loved Mark Strong's Blackwood in the first movie, I thought Jared Harris's Moriarty in the second movie was just as effective, if not more so – his quietness hid a cold and violent fiend (all the Schubert "trout" imagery was amazing, as was the chess imagery — and the classical music. And the authentic Roma music! I could go on and on about this movie…it has layers upon layers of goodness…). Whereas BBC Sherlock's wedding scene (Watson and Mary) went on FOREVER (was there ever a longer wedding or more babbling droning speech?), "Game of Shadows" threw us a wedding that last less than 4 minutes and yet held more worlds of deep human emotion than BBC could ever imagine. And yet the movie is ever adept at mining emotion and then, in the next breath, sending you dashing off with its heroes as they blow up a train and head off to Paris for their "real honeymoon" (oh, you two!). As Joss Whedon has said, give them pain, give them emotion, but then for God's sake follow it up with a laugh. The best action-adventures all follow this dictum, and "Game of Shadows" is among the very best.

  2. Completely agree with all of this. RDJ's Sherlock Holmes is by far my favorite of the three current ones (although it shouldn't really be compared to the two television shows, which are both set in modern times and have a Sherlock Holmes in name only — really, you could change the names of the TV characters in both the BBC and CBS series, and have just as entertaining a show, with no one the wiser. They are that interchangeable.) Your point about the movie beginning "in medias res" — in the middle of things, in the midst of Holmes and Watson's friendship — is quite brilliant. The movies have a very different set of challenges than the two TV shows do – the first one had to set up a completely believable partnership without going into all the background of how they met, forged their friendship, etc. – and it did so wonderfully well. To get their stories across in a short two hours, while building a believable Victorian-era universe and the whole plethora of Holmes characters (Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, the villains, etc.) the movies need to use a kind of shorthand that, in a lesser movie, reads as wooden or expository — not so in these, which keep the momentum going and the audience caught up even as they accept these things as, of course, part of the story. And you are absolutely right that RDJ's Holmes is the most believable and true to Canon (the original books and stories) of all the current Sherlocks. He DOES get a "cynical bum rap," as you say, from critics and some corners of the Sherlockian universe, but their reasoning is flawed and they severely underrate the movie series. For sheer entertainment value alone, the movies win; for sheer worldwide popularity, the movies win again; but also for their faithfulness to the real character and personality of Sherlock Holmes as presented in the books, and for Robert and Jude's magnificent chemistry and performances.

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