Film Preview: Sherlock Holmes

IN A FILTHY, DANK LABYRINTH OF rooms below the streets of the East End, Sherlock Holmes is solving a case.

That is, Robert Downey Jr, playing the detective in the forthcoming film Sherlock Holmes, is engaged in hand-to-hand, foot-to-stomach combat with a very big and very bad villain (Robert Maillet). Bam! Pow! Ouch! Both characters end up knocked out on the floor, along with Holmes's trusty sidekick, Dr John Watson, played by Jude Law.

Filmed last December, the scene presents a sharp corrective to the popular cinematic view of Holmes, at least the one propagated by the old films featuring Basil Rathbone. That Holmes occasionally wielded guns, leapt out of carriages and rushed through the fog with Errol Flynn panache, but mostly he was a giant brain inside a tweed suit, sexlessly debonair in the way Hollywood liked its leading men in the 1930s and 1940s. His Watson, played by Nigel Bruce, was a lumpy, good-natured, bird-brained foil for Holmes' brittle brilliance.

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The Sherlock Holmes of Sherlock Holmes, released later this year, will not wear a deerstalker. Nor will he be wearing an Inverness overcoat, the kind with the dashing cloak that hangs over the shoulders as extra protection against the rain. Sometimes – as in one fight scene – he will not even be wearing a shirt. (This gives Downey a chance to display his admirably chiselled abs.)

Yes, he will still be smarter than everyone within a three-planet radius, and will retain his uncanny ability to intuit whole life stories from the tiniest speck of dust on a shoe. But he will do those things while being a man of action, a chaser, shooter and pummeller of criminals – "like James Bond in 1891", as co-producer Joel Silver says.

Another co-producer, Lionel Wigram, who conceived the story, says reinventing Holmes as an action hero made perfect sense. "I never agreed with the idea of the fairly stuffy Edwardian-type gentleman," Wigram says. "It wasn't my idea of Sherlock Holmes."

He is speaking in the underground catacomb, once part of London's prison system and standing in for its sewers in the film. The director, Guy Ritchie, is in a nearby room watching the actors in their choreographed fight.

Ritchie, known for stylised, quick-talking, fast-moving films set among the criminals, lowlifes and hard men of London's underworld, would seem to be something of a gamble as director of such a big Hollywood extravaganza. His early films, including Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, remain his most successful, and he has had some bad patches. (Don't mention Swept Away, which starred the erstwhile Mrs Ritchie.)

His latest film, last year's RocknRolla, was seen as a return to form by many critics and did well in Britain, if not in the US. The Sherlock Holmes producers say Ritchie's style is perfectly suited to their concept. "We thought he had the capacity and the ability to make a big, fun movie, and what really pushed it over the top was Robert Downey Jr," Silver says.

Before Downey came along, Ritchie considered making the film about Holmes as a young man, in the vein of Batman Begins, positioning him somewhere between adulthood and the teenage sleuth of Barry Levinson's film Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). But he soon scrapped that idea, betting on Downey's action-hero prowess, on display last year in Iron Man, and on the singular take he was sure to bring to the character. Downey's Holmes is darker than that of Rathbone or others who have taken on the part, such as Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree (1979) and Nicol Williamson in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).

The new Holmes is rougher, more emotionally multi-layered, more inclined to run with his clothing askew, covered in bruises and smudges of dirt and blood. This Holmes falls into modern-style funks between cases, lying on the sofa, suffused with ennui, unshaven and unkempt, surrounded by a pile of debris. He keeps his bills pinned to the wall with a bowie knife. But when he applies himself, Holmes is as fast with his body – he is a bare-knuckle boxer, a crack shot and an expert swordsman – as he is with his mind.

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Character and actor share certain traits. Like Holmes with his cocaine habit, Downey has been buffeted by internal vicissitudes, including a long spell of drug addiction. (Unlike Holmes, he has spent time in prison and in rehab centres and replaced all that with a regimen of therapy, nutrition and fitness. He has also become deft in the fast-paced, aggressive Chinese martial art of wing chun.)

Like Holmes, Downey, 43, has a mind so active it seems to run ahead of itself. He craves constant stimuli, partly for his own intellectual nourishment and partly, you suspect, to keep his demons at bay. His conversation flits from topic to topic in a manner that suggests he pursues his work as intensely, and intently, as Holmes pursues his.

"He's the archetype of a tortured perfectionist," Downey says of his character. As he speaks in his trailer between scenes, he whips up, and then eats, a scarily healthy-looking concoction of what appears to be Japanese vegetables, in a special dish. But he says that in his own case, what drives him is "confidence more than obsession" – "It means I won't let go. My experience shows me that I know how to win, that I'll end up in the end zone."

Downey says he and his fellow cast members, along with the director and producers, have been poring over the script to stamp out any hint of "elementary, my dear Watson"-type clichs. As he speaks, his own Watson, Law, is in a nearby building reading a book about Hamlet. (He is scheduled to play the title role in a West End production this spring.)

Law says he is enjoying upending the conventional wisdom about Watson: that he is fat and slow. "He's a man who left the military a few years ago and who takes a military approach to situations," he says. "He's slightly more strait-laced than Holmes but certainly no less brave." And, he adds, while Watson is hardly as brilliant as Holmes – who is? – he's "certainly not stupid".

Back in the catacomb, Susan Downey, a producer on the film and Downey's wife, says Holmes is "a bit of a ladies' man, a bit of a brawler", adding: "He has a gambling problem. If you're a Sherlock Holmes fan who is in love with the original stories, then you'll appreciate him."

Arthur Conan Doyle's tales set the stage for the classic Holmes-Watson relationship, "the relish of language and the cerebral tennis matches that go on between them as they unravel this mystery", as Law describes it. But Conan Doyle appears to have conceived his detectives as action characters too, alluding to Watson's military service, to boxing matches and gunfights, and to Holmes's use of the martial art baritsu (he most likely meant bartitsu).

"So many of the ideas that Conan Doyle had took place offstage in his books," Susan Downey says. "We have the technology, the budget and the means to carry them out."

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Wigram says he had loved Sherlock Holmes since he was a boy, when his father read Conan Doyle's stories aloud to him. "I've been thinking for the last ten years that there must be a way to reinvent Sherlock Holmes." An executive with Warner Brothers until 2006, Wigram pursued the idea when he left to become a producer.

"I realised the images I was seeing in my head were different to the images I'd seen in previous films," he says. He imagined, for instance, "a much more modern, more bohemian character, who dresses more like an artist or a poet". A louche, slightly wicked-looking character, he thought, like someone from a Toulouse-Lautrec painting or a member of the Rolling Stones – perhaps Brian Jones – in their Victorian-dress period.

And Wigram conceived the story as having a broader sweep than any single Conan Doyle short story. "Even though the stories are a joy to read and reread, they do tend to be fairly small, contained murder mysteries," he says.

"And so for the big mainstream audiences these days, I knew we would have to come up with something where the stakes were bigger and that had a big fantasy element."

He is not the only one dreaming of Holmes these days. A comedy starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Holmes and Will Ferrell as Watson is in the works. And the BBC is filming a one-hour story about Holmes, set in modern London.

Ritchie's movie starts with Holmes apprehending a murderer and master of the dark arts named Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) – a character based, Wigram says, on the notorious Victorian occultist Aleister Crowley. As he is led to the gallows, Lord Blackwood pledges to come back from the dead and continue his evil ways. He does just that, and the rest of the movie follows Holmes and Watson as they try to foil his plot. Rachel McAdams plays the enigmatic Irene Adler.

Wigram would not reveal anything about the cost of the movie, saying only that it was a "proper big-budget film". Ritchie seems gleeful about that. "If I want something, I get it," he says. "I'm used to having to come out with a screwdriver the night before and fix things on set, so this is very nice."

But will the movie really work as a Guy Ritchie movie, with all that quick pace and modern feel? "Guy brings an energy and an expertise at physicality and action while being faithful to the period," Law says. "The Victorian London that Holmes and Watson were working in was the cesspit of the world. They're dealing with criminals and villains and street urchins."

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Another question, since the movie is meant for a family audience – or, as Ritchie puts it, is "deliberately designed so I can watch it with my family and friends without any embarrassment": Drugs?

No, Wigram says, speaking of Holmes. "He doesn't do cocaine in our movie."

• Sherlock Holmes will be released in the UK later this year.

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