When Edgar Allan Poe invented the literary detective genre in 1841, little did he know that C. Auguste Dupin, his clever little Parisian "ratiocinator," would lead directly to the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle's "consulting detective" Sherlock Holmes some 46 years later. The fictional Holmes first arrived at the scene of the crime exactly one year prior to the emergence of the very real Jack the Ripper. Fittingly, both fictional man and factual monster appeared in their own variations in A Study in Scarlet, both turned out to be equally good for selling periodicals, and both gained permanent positions in popular culture.
Over the years, Holmes - obsessive, possibly bipolar, and never less than a gentleman even when prone to firing off guns and mainlining "medicinal" cocaine in the flat he shared with his friend and chronicler Dr. Watson - has been a cinematic staple. The character has been essayed by actors including the legendary (and stodgy) Basil Rathbone, Nicol Williamson (in 1976's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which notably featured a young Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson), Robert Stephens (in Billy Wilder's vaguely homoerotic The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) and Christopher Plummer (in the excellent Holmes/Ripper face-off Murder by Decree).
Now Guy Ritchie has reinvented the chilly, brainiac character as a tortured genius, ladies' man (sort of) and occasional back-room brawler. As played by Robert Downey Jr. (an inspired casting choice), this incarnation is a post-millennial man of action, spurred on by a woman of equal action: his former love, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, looking suitably flouncy-tough), who engages his services to locate a missing dwarf.
With Watson (Jude Law, another spot-on bit of casting) at his side, Holmes uncovers a satanic plot that takes him from the lowliest subterranean hellholes to the (literally) highest levels of Parliament. His quarry here is one Lord Blackwood (a stern, unflappable Mark Strong), a sort of Victorian terrorist with Bond-villain dreams. The game is afoot and Ritchie, who overdosed on his own testosterone with last year's riotously dull RocknRolla, manages to mostly restrain his more florid directorial flourishes while creating a CGI London so soot-heavy you can practically smell it.
While literary traditionalists and Baker Street Irregulars (of which I am one) may find this Holmes' penchant for face-crunching fisticuffs and back-alley chases a sad sop to the action-jaded audiences of the 21st century, Downey's more masculine interpretation of the character is never less than startling, fresh and entertaining. Here's hoping that younger members of the audience will seek out Conan Doyle's original stories to further explore Holmes' official amanuensis, Watson, whose brilliant case studies regarding his friend, roommate and fellow rationalist are the stuff dreams are made of.