19th century London, the scheming Lord Blackwood is facing the hangman's noose thanks to the detective skills of Sherlock Holmes. Shortly after his demise reports of Blackwood's apparent resurrection begin to circulate, setting in motion a murderous plot that can only be stopped by the famous residents of 221B Baker Street.
The character of Sherlock Holmes has endured for well over a century, his powers of deduction coupled with the detailed Victorian backdrop captivating new generations of fans. His popularity also established in no small part by the numerous cinematic adaptations, so numerous that they make him one of the most frequently filmed fictional characters of all time. This latest offering, from director Guy Ritchie, sees Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law adopt the roles of Holmes and Watson in a semi-successful attempt to transform the pair into wisecracking action heroes.
From the energetic opening, with the duo thwarting a sacrificial murder and apprehending the culprit Lord Blackwood (an on form but underused Mark Strong), it's clear that this is a more physically adept Holmes than audiences are used to. The writers have taken a couple of brief allusions to his fighting prowess from the source material and turned him into a man of brawn as well brain. Although his fisticuffs are well realised – audiences privy to Holmes' planned attacks based on an analytical examination of his foes – it's a reinvention of the character that isn't always totally convincing.
Despite the hype this isn't quite the radical reinvention some think, it bears close comparison to Barry Levinson's equally lightweight and to some equally sacrilegious Young Sherlock Holmes, and a few nods to the original stories notwithstanding – Holmes' musings on a pocket watch lifted almost verbatim from the page – Ritchie's film will probably frustrate devotees. But it's hard not to be swept along by the palpable enthusiasm on display, and the cheeky irreverence appears to stem from a genuine affection for the characters rooted in an appealing central performance.
Robert Downey Jr imbues Holmes with just the right amount of aloof oddness and single-minded alienating obsession to evoke Doyle's original creation. Jude Law easily complements Downey as Watson, his all too human comrade in arms. The pair make for a watchable dynamic duo, even if the constant buddy movie banter and broad comedy almost becomes tiresome, a major distraction from the plot. Or more accurately covers up a simplistic tale involving a familiar blend of occult secret societies threatening the fate of the world. The inclusion of Irene Adler, a character familiar to Sherlockians, is little more than further padding; a thinly drawn and blandly portrayed female foil to Holmes on hand to get into trouble and introduce a potential future adversary. And you don't need to be Sherlock to guess who that might be.
Ignoring its narrative shortcomings, and the fact that it can feel like a rather cynical exercise in establishing a new franchise, Sherlock Holmes is an exuberant romp; a melange of steampunk tinged Victoriana, comic book plotting and Indiana Jones influenced action. It's also Guy Ritchie's most accomplished film, treating audiences to an evocative recreation of Victorian London with set pieces stylish enough to overlook the odd dodgy CG shot. A sequel is obviously forthcoming, hopefully it'll expand upon these lively beginnings of what is a spirited formula for the reinvigorated crimefighters.