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‘Sherlock Holmes’ Finally Gets a Clue

NEW YORK - The deerstalker cap, Inverness cape and that silly pipe? All gone. Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian-era sleuth has gotten the stuffiness knocked out of him.

By now, it should be no mystery that one of the most frequently portrayed characters in film history, played by more than 70 actors, has been reborn as a sweaty, bare-fisted brawler in Sherlock Holmes, opening Friday.

The clues have been out there for months, in ads and trailers that reveal Robert Downey Jr.'s tough-guy version of the genteel detective, as likely to rely on kung-fu skills and swordplay as on his powers of deduction.

Downey, 44, whose drug abuse and legal woes all but rendered him unemployable earlier this decade, has established himself as one of Hollywood's top action heroes, proving his success in last year's Iron Man was no fluke.

And consider the transformation of leading man Jude Law, 36, who gives bumbling Dr. Watson a much-needed shot of virility as a loyal sidekick in, for him, a rare blockbuster.

Perhaps most unanticipated is that Guy Ritchie, 41, the former cutting-edge boy wonder of British cinema (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch), is as adept at popcorn fare as he is with scrappy gangster yarns. Even his harshest critics, those in his own country, are impressed. As The Times raved, "Ritchie's larky, comic approach to Conan Doyle's much-loved literary hero works unexpectedly well."

That this trio has been reinvented almost as much as Holmes is a kind of mystery itself.

Robert Downey, action hero

Downey should be exhausted. He has worked on three back-to-back projects: Sherlock Holmes, next summer's Iron Man 2 and the just-wrapped Due Date, a road comedy directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover). That's in addition to flying to London for a press junket and a premiere, and then repeating it all here.

The actor, rested and alert even after a Late Night With David Letterman taping, explains: "It's so much easier to not be exhausted by something you have pride in or is engaging. You get 2% more energy from it than it takes from you."

Downey also is savoring his second chance. Says Law, a close friend on screen and off: "Robert is continuing to prove what we already knew. And he is doing it with a lust. He's got his head in such a good space now."

Except the edgy, volatile auxiliary member of the Brat Pack in the '80s is now taking roles that used to go to Bruce Willis or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. He points to Iron Man director Jon Favreau. "It was Favreau's faith in me to give me a shot at screen testing for Iron Man," he says. "And then it was my own confidence that I was as good of a choice as anybody."

But most battle sequences in Iron Man were done with effects. Not so in Sherlock, and Downey proved it one day after requiring seven stitches in his mouth.

Ritchie wasn't convinced he would be right for Sherlock until he saw Iron Man. "He's fitter than a 19-year-old Marine," he says. "Three percent body fat, which I am not jealous of at all. He's physical, he's tenacious and he's smart. Robert Downey Jr. is exactly why God created man. So he could (mess) up and then get it right the second time around."

Downey points to two other factors that have set him up for action-hero status. First is the fitness regime he picked up after rehab that involves the martial-arts discipline Wing Chun. He says he trains "as often as I can."

Then there is 1992's Chaplin, the source of his first Oscar nomination, which required agility and strength to play the knock-about silent-film legend. He says of Richard Attenborough's biopic, "It prepared me to do as much or more than would be needed in any sort of genre."

Speaking of Chaplin, Downey recently had "a hankering" to see the 86-year-old British filmmaker - or "Dickie," as he calls him. What did he say? "He told me he had been always under the assumption that it would be my ambition that would trump any difficulty." So far, so true.

From stage back to screen

To be or not to be taken seriously? That question was pretty much answered for Law after his nearly sold-out run on Broadway as Shakespeare's Hamlet closed earlier this month. A typical reaction from The New Yorker's critique of his performance: "A sensation, if not a revelation."

Yet the British actor has regularly gotten his due on stage, where he started his career and collected a Tony nomination for 1995's Indiscretions.

But after standout secondary roles in as 1997's Gattaca and 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley (the source of his first Oscar nomination), the handsome Law has been typecast with lead parts even though he is often better served by such colorful characters as his creepy hit man in 2002's Road to Perdition.

And, yes, this divorced actor's own indiscretions, such as the fling while making Sherlock that resulted in the birth of his fourth child, is the stuff of tabloid gold. And often upstages his work.

Little wonder then that he was happy to concentrate on glancing askance at Sherlock's antics and throwing a punch now and then.

"For some reason, probably just the nature of the part and being in the hands of Guy, I felt very comfortable playing it," says Law, who does seem jauntily at home in Watson's tweed suits and a bristly mustache. "I've never been a great fan of dashing leads. I've always found them slightly derivative and not very challenging. To me, variety is very much the spice of acting life."

Variety is exactly what a mainstream holiday entertainment like Sherlock offered. "This is my first foray into that," he says. "I was intrigued by the notion of making something so recognized fresh." For producer Joel Silver, Law is the happy surprise in the film. "You expect Robert to be great," he says, "but Jude is funny, handsome, athletic. He does all he needs to do, and there is a good feeling between the two."

Or as Rachel McAdams, who plays femme fatale Irene Adler, says, "They are so cute together. I love their banter and bickering."

While the actor takes a break after six months of being Shakespeare's Danish prince, including engagements in London and Denmark, he is hoping that Sherlock might allow the industry to see him anew. "To be honest, I've been waiting for that opportunity for years. I thought it would come after Road to Perdition. The truth is, you can only choose from what you are given."

A fan from way back

Ritchie is in a cheeky, even jovial mood. Apparently, large budgets (estimated cost: $80 million) agree with him.

That was decidedly not the mood when he was promoting his previous outing, the more typically Ritchie-ish RocknRolla. Every answer was hard labor.

Today, it's more like child's play. Asked who is behind the shadowy Moriarty, Sherlock's infamous arch villain, in several scenes, the director acts coy. "I'm not going to tell you." Was it you? "Might be." Was it? "Might be." Might it be somebody else? "Not going to tell you."

So why did he choose this moment to expand his vision, temper his in-your-face editing tricks, keep the language and details PG-13 clean and reach out to the great masses of moviegoers?

"I just wanted to do something different. I liked all the elements in the equation. It has an English identity, but nevertheless, it has American muscle. And that's a good marriage."

Speaking of marriage, his eight years with Madonna not only resulted in the weakest of his six directorial efforts, 2002's Swept Away, it also made him a prime gossip-rag target - an annoyance he shares with Law.

But the actor says Ritchie handles it much better than he does, even when the announcement of his divorce coincided with the start of filming Sherlock Holmes.

"He is a very evolved man," says Law, who has worked with everyone from Steven Spielberg (Artificial Intelligence: AI) to Kar Wai Wong (My Blueberry Nights). "He has an incredible calm and strong sense of self and doesn't let the rubbish in. I was looking forward to working with him, but I never imagined he would run such a happy set. This proves to me that he is actually a really great filmmaker and can step up, and he can have his signature so present but on a bigger palette."

When addressing why he took on the daunting task of revitalizing a literary hero, Ritchie likes to tell how, when he was 6, he attended a boarding school where, as a bedtime treat, recordings of Holmes tales were played.

Basically, the material was halfway there. "I think that if Conan Doyle could have been a screenwriter, he would have been a screenwriter. What he created was a James Bond-esque character that, in a way, I prefer to James Bond. It's more intellectual. It's more surprising."

It remains to be seen whether Sherlock catches on and inspires sequels. Will he ever go back to smaller films? "I honestly don't know. I have several ideas. I'm just a little hen sitting on my little eggs, waiting for them to hatch."

1 Responses »

  1. I can't wait to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie, especially to see Downey's version of Holmes! It is great to see him back on his feet and starring in amazing movies like this and Iron Man! Go Robert!

    I see he is currently featured in an online game they have made to tie in with the film: http://www.221b.sh

    Since the movie only opens in December, I’m going to get my fix there in the meantime.

    Thought you might be interested!