Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

HolmesThumbby 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. • (1378 views)

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.

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16 Responses to Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

  1. Monsieur Voltaire says:

    Sorry, Brad, no good sides for me. Hated the movie, the story, the caricaturized characters, the goth/steampunk accents, the misappropriation of classy stories and their subtle characters for another over-the-top special-effects bonanza. Trite dialog and too many baby-face characters and fiery explosions for my taste. Well, we had to disagree about something at some point, right? 😉

    Or look at it this way. Jeremy Brett has preemptively ruined any future Sherlock Holmes for me.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Sorry, Brad, no good sides for me.

      I’m shocked, shocked that someone would dislike that movie more than I did.

      I’ve read every Sherlock Holmes story/novel and loved most of them. I was really impressed with the accuracy of the Granada production with Jeremy Brett. Please, someone out there tell me they haven’t seen it and are Sherlock Holmes fans. You are in for a treat. I wish I could erase my brain and start over and watch them again.

      I’ll stand by my assertion that (as is usual these days) visually this movie is a treat. And the one or two moments that I mentioned. But that’s about it. I tried to keep an open mind when watching this. But it’s hard not to call a spade a spade.

      I see this as a phenomenon of the narcissism of our age. Instead of asking audiences to put themselves in another time and place, we take that other time and place and simply modernize it. Yawn.

      • Monsieur Voltaire says:

        BTW, the Brett series is wholly available for free on YouTube.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Cool, although I own all but the very latest ones (don’t bother with the vampire episode) on DVD. I might just be in the mood to watch one tonight. And it’s become a Christmas tradition to watch “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” in and around Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is one of the best of the Brett series. The Adler one is superb as well. So many are.

      • Kung Fu Zu says:

        “I wish I could erase my brain and start over and watch them again.”

        Don’t worry, in a few more years you’ll get your wish as age will erase your brain for you.

        I read all the original Sherlock Holmes stories about 35-37 years ago. I re-read them again earlier this year, but still enjoyed them immensely. Although I remembered most of the material, I was pleased to rediscover some points which I had forgotten.

        The Brett films followed the stories very closely.

  2. cdjaco says:

    I would echo your recommendation of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes on Granada TV. Brett’s interpretation is a bit odd at times, but from what I’ve found so far the episodes are much more faithful to the original work. And it’s available on Netflix!

    I thought both Richie/Downey movies were ok in a popcorn-munching, matinee-price-only kind of way. The second was definitely the weaker of the two, though. Both movies have a certain type of charm — maybe its just because they’re so over the top that it’s interesting to see a completely different take on the material. Perhaps that’s why the second seems so weak: we’ve seen this “remix” before, and the novelty has worn off.

    If one isn’t too much of a purist, I would recommend watching the BBC “Sherlock” series with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. It’s set in the present day but pays homage to the original cases in clever ways. The first season is quite good, and the second isn’t too bad either. The casting of a certain nemesis was particularly inspired, I think.

    I can’t speak to the show “Elementary” on CBS. I can’t stand Lucy Liu, so I’ve avoided it like the plague.

    • Monsieur Voltaire says:

      There’s a reason why classics become classics. They transcend fads and speak subtly and artistically to universal human inner truths, thus never feeling “aged.” This new Sherlock Holmes series, with its gratuitous “reinvention” (sans any of the the genius) of the characters, plus an all-you-can-eat bonanza of whiz-computer-kid effects and explosions is just something I found dumb. It felt like a steampunk version of “Escape from New York,” minus the likeability of Ernest Borgnine. Only positive? The cameo by Stephen Fry–the only real actor in the bunch.

      I know, I’m a hard-ass. But that’s why y’all keep me around. 😉

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I’ve seen three of the four first-season Cumberbatch ones. If one is going to modernize this story, you could do worse. I thought one or two of the stories was okay. But the one with Irene Adler was pretty poor.

      I’m indeed a purist. But I don’t mind someone taking their hand at adapting or interpreting. That kind of thing is as old as time, and many a good movie (or at least a mediocre one) has been based upon a Shakespeare play.

      But the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes seemed more like what the Left is apt to do: paint graffiti on the finest things in Western Civilization. This was not an homage to Holmes. It was a dismissal.

      You mentioned you thought that Jeremy Brett’s interpretation was a little odd at times. Perfect. That’s Sherlock Holmes. He was odd at times. He had eccentricities, and yet that was usually only when the game was afoot. And even then, he mixed with all classes almost seamlessly. He was abrupt, yes, especially when the game was afoot. But again you see some goofball filmmakers (such as with “Sherlock” series with Cumberbatch) take one characteristic and blow it up all out of proportion.

      Part of what made Sherlock Holmes interesting is that he had so many aspects to him. He was not a caricature. He was actually a very normal guy in most circumstances.

      It was nice to see the Granada series give respect to the Watson character as well. He wasn’t a stumblebum. He was a doctor and ex army officer. In comparison to the mind of Holmes, yes, he was a dunce. But he was the stand-in for the audience. And in the books, he is not a mere sidekick. He is a trusted aid. As Holmes had said many a time, he wasn’t at all pleased to take on a case without his Watson.

      Watson was enormously useful, especially as a man who knew how to use a gun. And he helped smooth the way in many circumstances. Holmes was self-aware enough to know that he came on a bit strong, although I don’t know if Conan Doyle made explicit mention of this.

      It’s arguable that Edward Hardwicke was a closer interpretation to Watson than Brett was to Holmes. Or that’s to say, they were both terrific. This is the kind of material that gets produced when people with talent have respect for their subject matter.

  3. Kung Fu Zu says:

    I have to agree with MV. I liked nothing about Robert Downey and this movie.

    I think Brett’s Holmes is the definitive Holmes, much like David Suchet is the definitive Poirot.

    Unfortunately, Brett’s health was deteriorating over the last view films.

    I find Brett’s performance even more amazing considering he played Freddy Eynsford-Hill to Audrey Hepburn’s Elisa Doolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady.

    • Monsieur Voltaire says:

      David Suchet, what a class act.

      Heh, heh… next thing, we’re going to see a remake of Poirot starring Leo di Caprio as the Belgian detective, Chris Rock as Captain Hastings, Roseanne Barr as Miss Lemon and Sean Penn as Chief Inspector Japp. Of course, there will be an overplayed love interest, perhaps played by wide-mouthed Julia Roberts cringingly pretending to be French by sucking on a cigarette throughout the flick.

      First episode: he thwarts a Nazi plan to build the Kriegsmarine Bismarck, ending up in a fireball-happy 1.1/2-hour shootout at the Blohm & Voss shipyard (under a permanently black sky), featuring made-up art déco guns.

      After they successfully blow up half the country, they kill, execution-style, the dictator who looks like a uniformed photocopy of Rush Limbaugh with a little square mustache, and the movie ends in a giant Bollywood dance sequence featuring Ashwariya Rai grinding herself against Miley Cyrus, each carrying a giant foam likeness of Obama on their hands.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I don’t know. Don’t you think this new incarnation of Miley Cyrus would be a better choice for Miss Lemon?

        I’ve seen most of the David Suchet Poirot episodes. If you’ve read any of the books, do you recommend the books?

        Oh, and along these lines, have you seen Laurie/Fry version of “Jeeves and Wooster”? I thought that was great stuff. I actually read a few of the short stories and those go down good as well.

        • Monsieur Voltaire says:

          Laurie/Fry team=pure genius. As good as the books, just like the Poirots are as good as the books. And vice-versa. I think that P.G. Wodehouse and A. Christie would be big fans of these versions. I don’t think you lose anything “in translation” either way.

        • Kung Fu Zu says:

          I think Christie is one of the few authors whose works on the big screen can be better than in print.

          That being said, here are a few of her early stories.

          1. The Mysterious Affair at Styles
          2. Poirot and the Regatta Mystery
          3. The Million Dollar Bond Robbery
          4. Secret Adversary

          Wait until you have read most of her Poirot stories before reading “Curtains”.

      • Kung Fu Zu says:

        Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!

        That’s me you see running in the opposite direction of this movie.

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