by Brad Nelson
First off, it’s a crime that this movie lost out to Avatar in terms of art direction. Avatar is a “Barney” film compared to Sherlock Holmes whose best aspect is probably the immersion of the viewer into the Victorian era. They do a nice job of creating the sights and sounds of old London. And the soundtrack is a delight as well.
A friend of mine compared this film favorably to the first Indiana Jones film, at least in terms of entertainment value. That makes some sense because, for better or for worse, this movie has turned Sherlock into an action hero rather than the cerebral thinker who resorts to fisticuffs only when absolutely necessary.
This new version of Holmes takes vast pleasure in fighting and even takes it to sadistic levels. The Holmes of the Conan Doyle stories applied only the force necessary, and preferred Watson or the police to deal with the tough stuff if at all possible.
And rather than this being a suspenseful drama based upon solving mysteries, this movie is full of mystical and steampunkish stuff and reminds me more of another movie I enjoyed, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, rather than a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Another reviewer at IMDB.com called it a Victorian buddy-buddy picture, and I think that’s largely true.
In this film, Holmes is less the refined English gentleman with bouts of eccentricity and is more the Bohemian. That’s another word for “unkempt,” which is certainly quite a departure for Holmes, although Holmes in the written stories certainly did have his drug-addled moments.
But the Holmes of the stories was generally a very well kept man, fastidiously so. That’s why his rare unkempt moments were so interesting. It’s because they were so unusual and relatively out of character. The Holmes of the written stories was precise, neat, and ordered, just like his mind.
But this movie finds a nugget of truth in the Conan Doyle stories and rides it for a mile. He becomes a bit of a slob. Yes, Holmes also played the violin and loved music, but it would still not be appropriate to turn Sherlock Holmes into a musical either. The Sherlock Holmes in the Conan Doyle stories had elements of many things shown in this movie, but they were not his main things.
This is a pretty much a total re-invention of Holmes and Watson who often share dialogue that would be more fitting with Tango and Cash. Although the setting is Victorian England, it seems the director couldn’t help inserting various modern cliches and other elements that modern movie goers seem to expect, including the idea that any criminal plot has to be about taking over the world.
This is at odds with the basic thrust of Sherlock Holmes wherein he was mainly dealing with particulate crime here and there, and certainly once in a while dealing with high crimes against the state. But the plot of this one is one that Lex Luthor would have approved of and understood. And the effect is to take the movie out of the realm of the gritty and real into that of the fanciful and implausible.
On the good side, it was nice to see (hear) Robert Downey Jr. do at least a serviceably British accent, something Kevin Costner couldn’t be bothered with in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And although RDJ’s portrayal of Holmes is a bit “out there,” I was a bit surprised that Jude Law (aside from the buddy-buddy Tango & Cash elements) was a somewhat serviceably Watson. He was plain and not terribly exciting which is good for a Watson character.
I think this film is more a product of director Ritchie’s mind than Robert Downey Jr., but RDJ plays Holmes as verging on the unstable rather than, what I think is truer to the written stories, Holmes as the restless and somewhat eccentric man which leads him to do certain naughty things, such as his 7% solution, once in a while.
But Ritchie and RDJ have re-invented Holmes as a more brooding, wild, and anti-hero type of character. Playing Holmes as a wild man — in fact, a physical brute — is about as far from the book as you could go. Holmes could box, certainly, but he wasn’t Van Damme. To say that Holmes could fight is not to say that that was his prime means of doing his investigative work. This movie is clearly a re-inventing of Holmes, for better or for worse.
What the movie gains from that re-invention is the excitement of more physical action, fights, explosions, and all kinds of Wild Wild West type of inventions and devices. What the movie loses from this approach is the mystery and suspense of crime-solving itself through methodical, and somewhat egg-headed, gumshoe detective work. And yet the CSI crime dramas on TV seem to do wonderful business. People will watch this stuff even without fisticuffs, explosions, and gadgetry.
The thinking-man’s Holmes rarely makes an appearance in this film. But there’s a particular good scene where Holmes is blindfolded and taken to the headquarters of the Temple of the Four Orders. After having described the means by which he knew exactly where he was and who these mysterious people were, Holmes says: “As to the mystery, the only mystery is why you bothered to blindfold me at all.” The movie could have used more of this sharp debonair wit. That is Sherlock Holmes.
Perhaps dragging this film down into the commonplace was the choice of criminals. I thought Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood turned in a bland and melodramatic performance. He would fit better as a villain in the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys series than in a Holmes mystery. Adding to the problem is the tired cliche of the super-criminal with powers of criminality that border on the supernatural.
Blackwood was flawless in performing the most difficult of tasks. He was always in the right place at the right time. Much like Heath Ledger’s “Joker,” he seemingly had a kind of criminal omniscience where he knew exactly what everyone else was going to do and where they would be. One reason the “Crystal Skull” Indy film was such a dud is because it took Indy out of the realm of the natural where real people have to live and are subject to the law of gravity. Instead, it put him in a refrigerator which protected him from an atomic blast which sent him flying for hundreds of yards and walking away unscathed.
Although Holmes in this film is a bit more terrestrially grounded than that, the Lord Blackwell antagonist isn’t and sends this movie more into the realm of sci-fi. As one reviewer put it “If you want to see Ironman stalk Moriarty, this is your flick.”
The buddy-buddy aspect of the movie didn’t work for me either, although there was one good scene where Holmes does a clue-reading of Watson’s fiance. This scene does the best to delve deeply into the character of both and somewhat defines their relationship. But even then, it’s a slightly different relationship than in the Conan Doyle stories. Here the relationship that Watson and Holmes have is a clear anachronism.
Don’t go looking too hard for British reserve or British understatement. At times Watson is almost Holmes’ nanny, even a nagging wife of sorts. In the written stories, although John Watson was often pestering Holmes over his use of drugs, they were two mature fellows who both had an interest in crime-solving and adventure. That was the basis of their friendship, not the one coddling the other.
And to even imagine Watson slugging Holmes is impossible, or vice versa. That’s the Tango & Cash element showing through. Perhaps modern audiences demand such a thing, but why do such an amazing job of re-creating Victorian London while the characters themselves might have stepped right out of a 1990’s movie?
Speaking of characters, the woman playing Irene Adler lacks the nobility and imposing mature stature of the one in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” She could have been left out of this movie and she wouldn’t have been missed. The guy playing Lestrade was okay, but I picture the one in the written stories as being older with much more personality, if perhaps that personality was almost comically dry and conventional.
But in the end, this movie is a re-invention of Sherlock Holmes rather than a re-interpretation. It runs too far afield. I think Robert Downey Junior’s Holmes would have worked better as perhaps the little-known Sherlock Holmes’ half-brother who is filling in for Holmes while he is on vacation, roughly along the lines of The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, a comedy starring Gene Wilder. But this would be his wilder, ass-kicking, unkempt one. And I’d be fine with that. But it’s false advertising to call this one Sherlock Holmes.
Is it really Sherlock Holmes anymore if he’s turned into an action hero and it’s no longer primarily about brains over brawn? I don’t think so. Seen as an adventure story, it’s fine. But as a Sherlock Holmes mystery, it totally misses the mark except in a few well-done scenes here and there. Particularly miscast is the spiritual-mystical nature of the Blackwood character. Even though all his hocus-pocus is explained in the end by Holmes, it lends more of a sci-fi or fantasy air to the film rather than what one would hope would be more of a cagier, cerebral CSI-like approach. I’ll give it 2 band-saws-that-should-have-kept-running out of 5.
Epilogue: The second “Holmes” film with Robert Downy Jr, A Game of Shadows, was such a piece of crap that it should be preserved in the film archives forever (much like Spider-Man 3) as an exquisite example of what is wrong with American film making. But after watching the first movie, you could definitely see this second one coming. Don’t waste your time with any of this trash. Go strait to Jeremy Brett’s version of Holmes. • (1448 views)