Sherlock Holmes movies are like city buses; you may miss one, but another will be following shortly. Since making his screen debut in 1905, Holmes has been the central character in about 150 theatrical and TV movies, portrayed by some 70 different actors (including Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett, Patrick Macnee, Charlton Heston, Edward Woodward, Michael Caine, Ian Richardson, Peter O’Toole, Frank Langella, Christopher Plummer, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Raymond Massey, and John Barrymore). I’m a Basil Rathbone man myself, and others swear by Jeremy Brett, who played Holmes on the BBC from 1984 until shortly before he died in 1995. Holmes has outlived many actors and will probably outlive many more; according to Guinness World Records, he’s the most-portrayed fictional character in film history.
What actor could pass him up? The strange experiments, the airy superiority, the dazzling deductions that leave everyone else struggling to catch up—Holmes is the superbrain we’d all like to be. Yet he became one of the great characters in genre fiction not because he was smart but because he was freakishly so. Cool and methodical, Holmes was the dark underbelly of Victorian rationalism, his intellect so overdeveloped that he could barely relate to anyone. “All emotions . . . were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind,” wrote his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, in the 1891 story “A Scandal in Bohemia.” “He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. . . . Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.” When the Allies searched Hitler’s bunker in 1945, the two film prints they found were both Sherlock Holmes adventures.
Holmes’s mind is so sharp that it makes everyday life unbearable. Lacking some form of mental excitement—a scientific problem to solve, a mystery to unravel—he falls into a funk, shutting himself in his rooms, reading voraciously, and shooting cocaine, his notorious “seven-percent solution.” With his insatiable need for mental stimulation, Holmes may have more to say about the 21st century than the 21st century could possibly think of to say about him. He’s the godfather of the ADD child, the relentless channel surfer, the compulsive Facebook updater. If Holmes were around now, without a decent case to occupy his thoughts, he’d be sitting in front of a video screen with an Xbox 360, mastering every game on the market and finally tossing aside the console in disgust.
Over the years some moviemakers have tried to solve this magnificent head case. In The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), the great Billy Wilder explores the detective’s marked aversion to women, playing it for comedy (to fend off a Russian ballerina, Holmes claims that he and Watson are lovers) and then for drama (he falls for a client, though his infatuation with her ends tragically). Both The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)—whose screenwriter, Nicholas Meyer, went on to direct the best of the Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Khan—and the Steven Spielberg-produced Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) propose that Holmes’s single-minded devotion to solving crimes is the result of a cruel and unjust father.
I haven’t seen the last of these, but I’d recommend either of the first two over Guy Ritchie’s thudding blockbuster Sherlock Holmes. In one of those stunningly wrongheaded innovations that plague the movie business—colorizing Night of the Living Dead, remaking Psycho—the makers of Sherlock Holmes have decided to emphasize not the detective’s intellect but his fighting skills. The movie opens with Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) racing down a cobblestone street at night in pursuit of some miscreant. When he corners the bad guy, the action halts and, in a slow-motion flash-forward with voice-over from Downey, Holmes bookishly maps out the blows he’ll administer and the damage they’ll inflict on different parts of the body. Then the action resumes and Holmes delivers the crushing blows exactly as foretold. Holmes and Watson—kicking ass and taking names.
Aficionados will be quick to point out that in the original Conan Doyle stories, Holmes knew how to take care of himself in a fight. He slugs a knife-wielding suspect in “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” (1893) and emerges victorious from a pub brawl in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” (1903). Elsewhere in the stories he’s described as an excellent fencer and boxer, and in “The Adventure of the Empty House” (also 1903) he recounts to Watson how he triumphed over his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, through the martial art of bartitsu. It’s a fair point—while we’re at it, George Romero would have shot Night of the Living Dead in color if he’d had the money, and Hitchcock adapted Psycho from a novel by Robert Bloch. But turning Sherlock Holmes into an action hero, when action heroes aren’t exactly in short supply, misses the appeal of the character by a country mile.
Downey isn’t a bad choice for the part, and he clearly understands the character’s attraction; he described Holmes to one interviewer as “a weirdo by any standards” yet “an expert by any metric.” In the movie’s single best scene, he dines at a restaurant with Watson (Jude Law) and the good doctor’s fiancee, Mary (Kelly Reilly), who’s meeting Holmes for the first time. When she asks him to demonstrate his famous acuity for observation and deduction, he notes the ring of abraded skin on her third finger and informs Watson that she’s just finished up with a previous husband. His snide remark wins him a faceful of wine from Mary, who explains that she’s recently been widowed and then stalks off. “Well done,” says Watson drily as he follows her, leaving a defiantly proud Holmes to dine alone.
But as directed by professional lad Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Revolver, RocknRolla), Downey is too loaded down with stunts and gags to let Holmes be himself. Fight scenes dominate the action, including one farcical contest that pits Holmes, armed with a prototypical electroshock baton, against a towering French thug. Irene Adler—the legendary woman who outfoxes Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia”—reappears here (well played by the sharp and sexy Rachel McAdams), but a romantic rendezvous between them ends when she drugs his wine, handcuffs him to a bed nude, and leaves him for the maid to find. Even more out of character for Holmes is the scene in which, jailed after some misadventure, he regales his fellow prisoners with a dirty joke (” . . . to which the barman replies, ‘May I push in your stool?'”). No matter how popular Sherlock Holmes has grown, he was never meant to be one of the boys.