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It's a bird, it's a plane, it's... Sherlock-Man!

By Raja Sen
January 08, 2010 15:56 IST
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Elementary, my dear reader. It was just waiting to happen.

For the last decade, Hollywood blockbusters have devoted themselves to being retreads of things we've seen already -- from comic books to theme park rides to video games to Saturday morning cartoons -- and as the zeitgeist (spelt t-w-i-t-t-e-r) is dictated by the perpetually online geek, pre-release buzz has increasingly been about being true to form. About, well, loyalty.

About how the mole on a superheroine's face is three whole inches off target (the horror, the horror!) and how several chapters of narrative have been reduced to three seconds of schlocky but wonderfully drawn opening credits.

The biggest films are now premiered and scooped at Comic-Conventions, and Hollywood has bent over backwards trying to please fans as every step of their decision making process -- from casting to costumes -- are leaked online and approval of the fan is sought.

Well, no more of that, decided Guy Ritchie, bringing us a film that -- despite character names and even lines of dialogue contextlessly scattered throughout -- has precious little to do with the original. He might still live in 221B Baker Street, but you've never seen this Sherlock Holmes before.

Which isn't a bad thing, really. Ritchie dismantles the Holmes milieu, turning it from a finely savoured vintage wine to a shot of hastily consumed tequila, and does this with such fantastic disdain towards the original masterpieces that it's hard not to get swept in by it all.

Purists may flinch a couple of times, but its abundantly clear that this is Sherlock in name alone, and no offense could possibly be meant if the results are such a lark.

Sherlock Holmes is an action/comedy -- doesn't that say everything, really? -- which happens to involve the name of the greatest sleuth of them all, and features an actor wonderfully suited to insouciance.

Much fun is had with long-drawn somewhat tiresome action setpieces amply compensated for by wonderfully quotable repartee. It is the whippersnappery of it all that truly works, and we're left with an on-screen blast. It doesn't entirely satisfy, because of an inherent insubstantiality making the film as forgettable as it is amusing: remember the bit about tequila?

The plot is a particularly un-Holmesian bit of period gibberish, featuring witchcraft and ginger midgets and cyanide and resurrections, and almost all the detective work seems haphazard and happenstance.

This is the story of two clever toughs rushing through a grime-celebrating, steampunk London, sparring through a bromance like no other, and solving a case which involves more chase sequences and less violin-aided contemplation. Mr Ritchie could really have done smarter with this script, given us something special.

Then again, perhaps the directing used up his not inconsiderable powers in casting, in making sure he had the right man for the job. This, he does. Robert Downey Jr could currently read a phonebook aloud and have us all in equal parts fascinated, thrilled and breathless from laughing, and he is given considerably more meat to work with.

His Holmes is an ad hoc mastermind, a self-obsessed detective with wit and flair who doesn't clinically break down clues, but uses his razor-sharp mind to predict his opponent's next incoming blow. He doesn't take in the case as much as he marauds it, but has enough bloody chutzpah to more than carry the day. Downey works the scruffy charm sensationally well, and few can pull off a slack jaw as well as he.

The actor works the role expertly, deducting impressively and loutishly at the same time, saying volumes with an arch of the eyebrows. This Holmes is a diva, and the film steps back and lets him perform.

As does his partner, the constantly smug Dr Watson, played with supercilious sincerity by Jude Law. Law's character is overwritten, constantly made to point out what Downey's already made obvious, but he keeps their unimaginably homoerotic relationship -- it isn't subtext anymore after Watson calls Holmes 'old cock' and Sherlock responds with 'mother hen' -- on a firm, very fun footing. The two bicker with all the good cheer of lovers in a Howard Hawks film, and whenever they argue, all the film's flaws are forgotten.

It also seems, peculiarly enough, that Ritchie's film is trying hard to be the Tim Burton version of Holmes: the filthy London sets pick up where Sweeney Todd left off, actors ravenously chew scenery, the writing is intentionally stagey, and Downey looks to be channeling a young Michael Keaton throughout. Only where Button would have poured in more whimsy, Ritchie tosses in another amusingly choreographed action setpiece. It is the battle between truly clever and truly cool, and one wishes the former won more often in Guy's films.

As mentioned, this really isn't Sherlock Holmes. Which is why it's refreshing to forget about the books and enjoy this vivid rollercoaster ride, accompanied by a great host. It is a film with the same strengths as the Indiana Jones movies, and as the shadowy presence of Professor Moriarty confirms, it should ideally turn into an old-school franchise we all can enjoy. I just hope Holmes gets to think more next time around.

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Raja Sen in Mumbai