Guy Ritchie’s true subject has always been London; the moneyed, brutish boxer’s fist that knuckles the Thames. London, that city of thieves, scoundrels and massively over-priced hotels, where the air turns your snot black and the weather drives a shiv into your bones. Like New York, but without the iconic silhouette, London is known more for its streets than its skyscrapers: Downing Street, Fleet Street; Carnaby Street. Even London’s most famous detective has a famous address: 221b Baker Street, home of Sherlock Holmes. In Guy Ritchie’s new movie, the cerebral sleuth returns to a city rank with wrongdoing. London’s tourists will know it well.
We begin with at the end of a hunt. Always lost without a criminal mastermind to pit his wits against, Holmes is after Lord Blackwood, a satanic peer of the realm. When apprehended in the middle of a ritual sacrifice, Blackwood vows revenge on Holmes. He claims he will return from beyond the grave, after hanging, and soon enough, after hanging, Blackwood rebounds. Fortunately, black magic doesn’t frighten Holmes. He’s more concerned with Doctor Watson’s impending nuptials. But – implored by Scotland Yard and seduced by an old flame – Holmes resolves to show Blackwood for a liar, to save England, and to stop Watson from settling down.
Is all this therapy for Guy Ritchie? After seven years of red string, Jewish mysticism and an aging pop music superpower, any man would be forgiven for sticking to what he knows. While Madonna/Lord Blackwood parallels would be going too far, the celebration of male camaraderie in Sherlock Holmes is surely something to do with Guy being a bachelor again. Divorce from Madonna seems to have restored Ritchie’s ad-man-meets-Alfie persona, and he doesn’t waste time seeking meaning in a Gothic detective tale. Sherlock Holmes isn’t – for good or ill – Jude the Obscure (his most famous adventure has him on the trail of a monster dog), so there’s no need for false maturity. It’s two boys vs. a baddie. The subtext is: Guy’s single.
Also out of jail (though in his case, L.A. County jail, not a marriage euphemism) is Sherlock Holmes himself, Robert Downey Jr. Now nine years drug-and-alcohol-free, it’s hard to believe he’s the same the actor who once, to use a Holmes metaphor, threw his career off the Reichenbach Falls. Downey plays Holmes with a wisp of camp but a core of polished silver. You get the feeling Holmes would happily marry Doctor Watson, but also that he could, dexterously, break your jaw. Although this is Downey having fun, and playing Holmes like Iron Man with a watch fob, it still takes skill to convince an audience that a Victorian gentleman is adept at kung-fu.
For Jude Law, aged, disgraced, and rueing the day he met Sienna Miller, Doctor Watson seems like a lifeline. Freed from the responsibility of being the star, Law becomes likeable. He no longer looks like the smarmy golden-haired bastard who everyone willed to fail, but instead like a winning character actor, a great foil for his co-star and the sort of man who wouldn’t shag his children’s nanny. Though the role of Watson (by necessity) means you must be subordinate to Holmes, Law finds a way of making Watson invaluable, partly by suggesting that he’s the love of Holmes life, and partly by keeping Robert Downey Jr. on his toes. Law’s affectionate smile – after punching Holmes in the face – is the most disarming of his career.
Guy Ritchie is about the right age to remember Young Sherlock Holmes, the Steven Spielberg-produced hormonal detective yarn. In 1985 it made a big impression on a lot of boys. Then, as now, lots of people claimed Sherlock Holmes had been done a disservice, that they’d got it all wrong, and Holmes would never do this or that. But London looked right – London’s streets could get you murdered – and Holmes did investigate crime in-between action scenes. What critics really disliked – the same thing Madonna disliked about Guy Ritchie, by the end – was the lack of seriousness. But that’s a good thing, both for Mr. Holmes, and the former Mr. Ciccone.