I'm all for Sherlock as a man of intense agility. Indeed, so was Conan Doyle, who described his cunning and eccentric sleuth as an ace bare-knuckle fighter who once dispatched his arch nemesis, Moriarty, in a flurry of martial arts.
But Ritchie, mega-producer Joel Silver, and their (many) writers have left out an essential element: soul. Downey, who appears to have boned up on his Brit-speak by reviewing the collected works of Jeremy Irons (dry, deadpan, a little debauched), plays Holmes as a bipolar type (up when he's on a case, down when he's not) whose ability to size people up by use of deductive powers is reduced to nothing more than gimmickry.
Holmes' relationship with Dr. Watson - played with bland alacrity by Jude Law - is akin to watching opponents in a verbal ping-pong match: volleys of snappy retorts, each man with the requisite glint in his eye, but with only glibness in the air.
The friction between the duo is due to Watson's impending marriage to the pretty Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). Holmes is out of sorts that the good doctor is turning his attention elsewhere, and moving to the other side of town, no less. (Homoerotic subtext? Elementary, my dear Watson.) As for Holmes, he liaises with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), whose importance in the Conan Doyle books is huge (she's "the woman" in the detective's life) but whose importance in the film is next to nil. It's a thinly written part, thinly played.
The masterminds behind the heavily CGI'd Sherlock Holmes had four Conan Doyle novels and 56 short stories to glean from - not to mention dozens of non-canonical Holmes tales, some of them quite good (Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is one, made into a very nice film, too, with Nicol Williamson as Holmes).
But The Da Vinci Code's Dan Brown seems to be the filmmakers' true inspiration: the villain here is the priestly Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a murdering noble and practitioner of the "dark arts" who is hanged for his crimes but then eerily returns to life. Blackwood heads a ritualistic cult that trades in signs and symbols - and has designs on reconquering America. Apparently, they're still sore about the Revolution. (Come to think of it, the film's Masonic huggermugger has much in common with the secret texts of the two National Treasures, too.)
The London of Sherlock Holmes is dark and squalid - doubly so for Holmes' living quarters at 221B Baker Street. Hansom cabs clank and rattle across gas-lit cobblestones, the Tower Bridge is under construction (and ready to provide a precipitous backdrop for the movie's climax), the new machines of the Industrial Revolution spew oil and smoke.
With a clamorous soundtrack and a whirl of elaborate chases and busily choreographed fight scenes, this is Sherlock Holmes with Attention Deficit Disorder.
Where's the quiet moment for cool reflection, for intense assessment of clues left behind?
Or, hey, even just a sec for this Sherlock dude to catch his breath?
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/