Sherlock Holmes

January 6, 2010

The miserable career of Guy Ritchie since his two early successes (though it was really just the one repeated, albeit well) in shallow, gangland-pop entertainments is well documented.  Flop after flop of misguided, kaballah-drenched soggy retreads had given the once British wonder boy the air of a has-been one-trick pony, like a novelty pop star desperate to follow up the original success by aping it.  One imagines Warner Brothers decided to resurrect one of the most famous literary characters in the world with the directorial equivalent of the Crazy Frog for at least two reasons:  1.) Recent career woes meant he was cheap and malleable and 2.) Holmes is apparently based in London, and Ritchie did those films that were set in London but were flashy and cool and maybe he could do that here, yeah?

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to see the trailers, you’ll know the new film version stars Robert Downey Jr. as the famous detective and Jude Law as his partner in crime-solving Dr. Watson (ten years ago I’d dare say the roles would have been reversed, but moving on).  You’ll also be aware that it boasts any number of large action sequences, ribald humour, and slow-motion bare-knuckle boxing, all of which are conspicuously absent from the better part of the Conan Doyle writings (as far as I know, being no expert on the matter).  Whatever the case, it is painfully obvious that Holmes is only bankable in today’s market if he’s a wisecracking, irreverent louche of a man, and if his inestimable intelligence is distracted from time to time by bone-crunching violence.  If you don’t mind this betrayal of classical values, this perverse dumbing down for the mainstream masses so the studios can have their humorous CSI: Victorian London blockbuster smash, then it really isn’t that bad of a film at all.

Holmes and Watson are having some difficulties with their partnership as the latter is engaged and soon to be leaving the practice when a youngish lord by the ominous name of Blackwood is caught and hanged for ritually killing five women.  He mysteriously comes back to life and soon our platonic couple is on the case.  Also involved a ‘feisty’ con artist and thief who has a history with Holmes, played by Rachel McAdams.  She’s working for a mysterious man, and if it you don’t work out that it’s Moriarity then you’re clearly an idiot.  That’s neither here nor there, at any rate, and the labyrinth plot moves along briskly, with double-crosses and conspiracies and murders and puzzles to solve.  Holmes’ deductions are as well written as you’d expect and those along with his repartee with Watson are the clear highlights of the film.  Holmes is best when he’s befuddling and offending the people he comes across with his pinpoint accuracy, and even if the final payoff of the master plan is something of a letdown, it’s an enjoyable enough ride to get there.  London itself looks fantastic, and all credit to the production design team as well as the cinematographer Philippe Rousselot for creating a world that’s grimy in the most popcorn fashion possible, even if it does occasionally smack of From Hell.  The acting is fine for what it is, though one wishes Eddie Marsan had more to do.  Downey does his usual, Law maintains dignity and quiet frustration as the straight man well, Strong is particularly good at rock-solid menace, and McAdams does okay with a role we’ve seen a thousand times before.

Ritchie’s visual excesses, while not too overbearing, are a different problem altogether.  So he’s managed to explain the slow motion fighting by having Holmes narrate each move he makes and how it affects the outcome, which is fine but still superfluous to do more than once.  The tilted angles and the constant visual reminder of just how cock-eyed our hero sees the world (that’s what makes him special, you see!) is tedious and one-dimensional.  Likewise, the CSI nonsense where Holmes looks at the evidence of a scene, and then we get a flash of the perpetrator doing what Holmes is saying he’s doing, is tacky enough on television, and as such has no place in the cinema, certainly not a decade after it was originally popularized at any rate.

Despite these problems, it’s hardly a Bay-style sensory overload that would lead one to vomit.  It’s more of an occasional mild-annoyance, easily cast off with a quick roll of the eyes to acknowledge its idiocy and the its gone again.  All in all, it is a pretty enjoyable time in the theater, and it stands up well against many of the blockbusters we’ve had over the last few years.  So if you don’t mind the bastardization of a much-beloved character for the sake of taking the money of the drooling masses, then yes, it is pretty good.  If you don’t mind, of course.

Which I do.  And why shouldn’t I?  I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes alright, but I did feel a twinge of regret as I did.  Why do we need to settle for this?  I was constantly reminded of that great Victorian-set mystery thriller The Prestige from a few years ago, directed by Christopher Nolan.  Its images were beautiful and dark and yet mysterious and classical.  It felt no need to punch up the adrenaline levels with ‘thrilling’ fight scenes and overblown special effects, and it miles more exciting than this.  It was a film of wonder and images, and sadness and insanity.  Who can forget the opening credits image of the hundreds of black top hats in the ice blue tinted hillside, or the horrifying realization of just how the big illusion was achieved?  Even as that film moved from mystery into science fiction, it was really about the characters and that is whom we followed.  The plot and its twists were never the point.  Why not scale things back, style wise and budget wise if you have to, and make a decent mystery that at least attempts to live up to Doyle’s greatest creation.  We, as an audience, are (hopefully) not as stupid as some in the industry would think us, thank you very much.  We don’t need to see a 21st Century hero in the 19th Century.  We can deal with a man being of his time.  We can handle it.  Please try to allow us to do so.

I did enjoy it though, so there’s always that.

-M

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