It's difficult to know how to review Guy Ritchie's latest film, "Sherlock Holmes."
On one hand, it's a rather entertaining action film, full of style and spark. On the other, it bears almost no relation to the character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Victorian detective whose clever adventures have been read and loved by millions around the world.
The beginning of the film offers a nod to the long tradition of Holmes adaptations, with a tracking shot of the mad bustle of Victorian London that echoes that of the British television series starring Jeremy Brett. Robert Downey Jr. isn't nearly as fetching or flamboyant as the late Brett — but he does have finesse. He has brains and brawn, thinking ahead like a chess player before he takes down a thug.
There are plenty of heavies to handle. This London - like all cinematic treatments of the era - is a rough-and-tumble place, made all the tougher by Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). The plot is never the point of these sorts of films, and it's enough to say the aristocrat puts the fear of God into his peers using some creepy ceremonies of the occult.
Holmes is not alone in tracking Blackwood's machinations. He has the aid of a man with a gun, his friend Dr. James Watson (Jude Law). Holmes and Watson, in Mr. Ritchie's imagining, are like an old married couple — though with none of the homoeroticism some purists feared.
Someone else is also in on the action, although her acts aren't as clearly motivated.
"Why is the only woman you've ever cared about a world-class criminal?" Watson asks Holmes.
It's rather easy to see why: Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is stunning and spunky, a worthy companion for Holmes — if he'd been looking for a partner in crime.
It's not fair to say this Holmes is nothing like the iconic creation of the books. Holmes was known as a talented boxer, though he didn't use the skills much in the stories. He relied more on his trusted gun-toting friend, who always brought a revolver along on the jobs. Holmes isn't a detective-for-hire. His labors are for love, and he chooses his cases carefully — and refuses to take credit when he solves them.
Yet there are few of the eccentricities that made Holmes a character who will be loved as long as people still read books. His violin playing is terrible. And where's the cocaine? It seems incredible that a film by Mr. Ritchie, known for gangster flicks such as "Snatch," wouldn't take advantage of Holmes' terrible habit. (Though he does give his London pub, the Punchbowl, a nice cameo.) The director seems to have been more interested in making the money a PG-13 rating would provide. Readers of the books also will cringe every single time Holmes calls Watson "old boy" - and it happens repeatedly.
Four people were involved with the script, yet it's still filled with melodramatic cliches, as when Adler mournfully looks at Holmes and says, "I don't want to run anymore."
With problems like that, it doesn't really matter that Mr. Downey brings a suitably manic-depressive intensity to the role or that Mr. Law surprises as the perfect, steadfast Watson. This film seems like a cynical moneymaker, using a storied name to draw attention while not even trying to bring that beloved creation to life. Expect more of the same, though.
With Professor Moriarty mentioned at the end, the door is wide open for a sequel.
TITLE: "Sherlock Holmes"
CREDITS: Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, with a screen story by Lionel Wigram and Mr. Johnson. Based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
RATING: PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material)
RUNTIME: 128 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS