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Sherlock Holmes (2009): ***½

Directed by Guy Ritchie

All too often Sherlock Holmes is portrayed as a stuffy, tweedy, dry intellectual, full of calm and cool reason, using only the power of his brain to solve dastardly crimes. But that portrayal has always seemed, well, boring to me. There is nothing boring about Robert Downey Jr. and Guy Ritchie's vision of the famous detective. This brave new Sherlock Holmes is quite a departure from previous film versions of the character, and at the same time extremely reverent to the original stories. And above all else, this one is FUN.

I read a handful of the Holmes stories when I was in grade school, and this is kind of how I always pictured the character: a weird, intense, eccentric, obsessive/compulsive, driven, manic/depressive druggie. The only other portrayal of the character I've seen that has come close to this one is Basil of Baker Street in Disney's The Great Mouse Detective, which was my all-time favorite portrayal of the character before now. Basil also displayed the insane, high-energy intensity that a good Sherlock Holmes should always have.

And he's a man of action, as it should be! Holmes is a master fencer and martial artist, and so it has always been terribly frustrating to see him not be able to utilize his physical skills alongside his mental. Not so in this film! There are a couple of wonderful fight sequences where we see and hear Holmes plotting out his moves and their probably outcomes only moments before executing those moves.

Also of great relief was the fact that Jude Law's Dr. Watson was not some bumbling, overweight, incompetent comic relief. Doyle's Watson was an army doctor, a man who performed surguries in combat situations in Afghanistan, a crack shot with his service pistol (maybe even a better shot than Holmes himself), who was discharged from the army because he was shot. And Law portrays Watson as a competent, level-headed, grounded foil to Holmes's insanity.

The chemistry and relationship between the two characters is what the whole movie is about. Forget the mystery, forget the villain(s), forget Irene Adler. Just watching Downey's Holmes and Law's Watson interactions is worth the whole movie. Just watch the exasperation in Watson's eyes as he is confronted yet again with some insanity or other from Holmes. There's a strange, almost abusive co-dependency between the two. Holmes uses Watson, but Watson lets himself be used because he knows that without his grounding, Holmes would be almost useless. The pair is capable of far more than either individual alone; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is a wonderful moment late in the film when Holmes awkwardly confesses that he is glad that Watson didn't die during the course of the adventure.

The art direction in the portrayal of London is top-notch as well. This isn't some cliched, fog-drenched cobblestone London, nor is it a rosy, soft-focus London. This is a soggy, dirty, industrial London that is emerging into the modern world. It has palpable layers of grime and grit in the name of progress. I would not like to go swimming in the Thames of this movie.

One thing I really enjoyed about the mystery central to the plot of the movie is that, when Holmes finally lays out the entirety of the solutions of all of the various mysteries, it is impossible for the we the viewers to figure out the solutions because they involve very specific and esoteric bits of knowledge that Sherlock Holmes knows (because he's Sherlock Holmes) but to which the viewers are never made privy. This also reminded me of many of the original stories in which the solution hinges on Holmes knowing some random fact (like where/when a certain flower blooms, or what medical properties it has) that we would never know ourselves. It is pointless to try to "play along" with solving this mystery because, honestly, are we going to delude ourselves by thinking we're as good as Sherlock Holmes? I got a real kick out of that, to be honest.

I liked this movie a whole lot. It was fun, funny, and in a great way it portrays the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson that I never really knew that I always wanted to see.

One last thing: Thank GOD Sherlock never wears that damned deerstalker cap and hunter's coat. That outfit would only ever be worn by someone who was going to the country, not by someone who would be running around downtown London, especially not someone so bohemian and stylish as Mr. Holmes.

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