“My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so,” Sherlock Holmes tells his sidekick Dr. Watson at the conclusion of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League.” It’s one of Doyle’s periodic hints that his hero uses his brilliance to placate a tortured psyche. Doyle’s most famous character has an unparalleled genius for detection, but he’s also kind of a mess, a drug-abusing weirdo kept from turning into a total recluse only by Watson’s friendship and a steady parade of mysteries making their way up the steps of 221B Baker Street.
Robert Downey Jr. sounds that self-destructive eccentricity as a keynote from his first appearance in Sherlock Holmes, and his twitchy, winning performance returns to it throughout the film. The interpretation veers sharply away from the tweedy expectations set by Basil Rathbone and others, but it’s as true in its own way to the source. Holmes is a man only fully engaged by life when it offers a direct challenge.
In all other respects, however, this is very much a Sherlock Holmes movie for the blockbuster era, a propulsive, noisy, visually immersive plot machine that pits Downey’s Holmes against a secret society and breaks up the investigation with a series of action setpieces. Fortunately, it’s a highly entertaining example of the form, directed with just the right amount of panache by Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels), whose showmanship finally finds the right side of self-indulgence. (Well, mostly. He does use a flatulent bulldog as a punchline.)
Jude Law co-stars as a wry Dr. Watson, whose impending marriage distresses Holmes in the moments when they aren’t investigating the apparent resurrection of a criminal mastermind (Mark Strong). Rachel McAdams plays Irene Adler, Holmes’ flirtatious bête noir and sometime ally, and to Ritchie’s credit, he gives the trio a fair amount of witty banter between the mad chases and fisticuffs. But Ritchie’s cleverest flourish—slowing the film down and focusing on Downey’s face as he plots out a plan seconds before putting it into action—wisely relies on the strengths of both the hero and the man playing him. Called up in moments of need from the exile of his own thoughts, he’s able to see the world as it really is and bend it to his will.