On Christmas Day, 2009, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes hit theaters, but it wasn’t what fans were expecting. In fact, most fans weren’t expecting much from the same guy who previously directed the crime comedies Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. While most people looked forward to seeing the familiar, pragmatic detective with his famous deductive and observational skills, Richie had other ideas. The detective was played by Robert Downey Jr., whom Ritchie originally thought was too old for the part. However, it seemed that Downey Jr.’s strong performance was well-received by both viewers and critics.
A lot of controversy surrounds Robert Downey Jr.’s rendition of Holmes, as it doesn’t quite measure up to previous installments. The biggest criticism surrounding the character is that he has been turned into an “action superhero.” The film features a wrestling Sherlock who can calculate his adversary’s vulnerabilities and methods of attack and disarm them before they strike. This has led to critics mocking the character with titles such as “brawling supersleuth,” “punch-throwing quipster,” and even “shapeshifter.” Despite the film being a mystery-action film, there’s more action than actual investigation, the latter of which many fans were looking forward to as Sherlock fans.
Not all viewers were disappointed with this new fist-throwing Sherlock, however. Others, myself included, found the fighting scenes refreshing and exciting. The first time I saw the sleuth deduce how to take down his opponent, I was surprised and more than a little psyched. After all, the Sherlock Holmes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels was also able to physically take down criminals in hand-to-hand combat and even knew how to handle various weapons. This is something that previous adaptations of Sherlock’s character lacked. It seemed that other directors had forgotten that the detective was a boxer and was familiar with martial arts, most notably Bartitsu (Japanese wrestling). This is understandable since the character is widely known for his intelligence rather than his combative skills.
Unfortunately, RDJ’s Sherlock didn’t always explain his deductions. The scene from the beginning of the film where Holmes saves Watson (Jude Law) from being stabbed with a long glass shard comes to mind. His only explanation to Watson asking how he saw it was “Because I was looking for it,” which was disappointing. Most of Sherlock’s deductions were saved for the fight scenes, like in his fight against Lord Blackwood or his bold takedown during the infamous boxer scene. He did use this logical reasoning on Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), but that was purely out of jealousy for trying to snatch his good friend Dr. Watson, one of the few people he gets along with.
One other thing viewers probably didn’t expect is this Sherlock’s appearance. He’s slovenly rather than elegant as we often see him, with his unkempt hair and unshaved beard. Downey Jr. maintains the character’s quirkiness and madness, but the trademark brusque and aloof parts of the character are hardly there. It should also be noted that he becomes infatuated with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) before she’s even outfoxed him. Also missing were Sherlock’s signature deerstalker hat and smoking pipe. He traded in that hat for a low top hat and the pipe is nowhere to be seen. And, rather than playing the violin in a normal way, he plucks the strings with his fingers.
Overall, Sherlock Holmes is still a good film, and Downey’s version of Holmes continues to make it enjoyable. As long as you come in with no expectations, you can enjoy it for what it is, which is a twist on previous takes. I like this Sherlock Holmes and more so for being able to kick butt. Not all intelligent characters have to be pushovers. This goes to show that both brains and brawn can coexist just fine.