Monday, December 28, 2009

Shermlock Shomes

One can almost imagine Guy Ritchie as a lad in Hatfield, Hertfordshire England, crouched under the bedclothes reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and thinking, Oh, how I wish Holmes was like Batman, swinging about and smashing the evil-doers!

Ritchie may not have actually had that boyhood wish — his new action-packed Sherlock Holmes was written by others (Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham) — but he has lent his directing talents to a Holmes that casts Robert Downey Jr. as the cerebral Victorian sleuth, reimagined as a surly, bare-knuckle-brawling bounder. Setting aside the heresy against the sacred Holmes canon, casting Downey was this misbegotten movie’s first mistake. The excellent Downey did intensive research for the role and wields a passable British accent, but he’s too young and contemporary-looking to be a credible Holmes. The next error was rendering insignificant Holmes’ friend and chronicler, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), who spends most of his screen time complaining about Holmes’ violin playing, pistol shooting and experimenting on Watson’s bulldog (the movie’s most charming actor).

The film serves up a mixed stew of hoary Holmesiana, featuring the evil Dr. Moriarty and Holmes’ female nemesis, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, dreadful). The plot is some folderol about an occult society whose leader, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), survives the hangman’s noose and has a plan for (what else?) world domination. Pursuing the case, Holmes and Watson participate in a series of imaginatively staged fight sequences.

Maybe Ritchie and company should be praised for taking Holmes out of the parlour, but really, Holmes should be charming rather than rude, and if he’s going to be an action hero, he might at least be a genteel one. Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrel, Snatch) has a good feel for the English underclass, and the few lively segments are those featuring its denizens (a pipe-smoking gypsy woman, a grizzled boat captain, a crowd at a pit fight improbably featuring a bare-chested Holmes). Overlong and a little unappetizing, this Holmes is unlikely to endear itself either to Holmesians or discriminating action-movie fans (if there is such a creature).

Nevertheless, Ritchie is busily at work on a sequel. Sir Arthur, please telephone your office.


Trike said...

I actually liked this version of Sherlock Holmes. None of the previous films ever captured the moody prima dona the character was in Doyle's stories. The drug-addled rock star is truer to the original.

"Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature."
-- From "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (1892).

“Not Mr. Sherlock Holmes!” roared the prize-fighter. “God’s truth! how could I have mistook you? If instead o’ standin’ there so quiet you had just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw, I’d ha’ known you without a question."
-- From "The Sign of Four" (1890).

Pamela Zoslov said...

Different strokes for different folks, I guess. Hard to see how you could find this onscreen farrago consonant with Conan Doyle's writing.

I kind of agree with Stuart Klawans of The Nation:

"There's a bit of death and resurrection going on as well in Sherlock Holmes--which might make sense, considering Conan Doyle's involvement with Spiritualism. But nothing in the source material seems to have interested the people responsible for this glorified episode of Scooby-Doo: a mash-up of fisticuffs, fireballs, black-magic rites (designed in the Warner Bros. Harry Potter house style), ghost-hunting debunkery and also, as an afterthought, a little deductive reasoning. Robert Downey Jr., wearing a fashionable three-day stubble about a century before its time, commits the first mistake he's ever made as an actor, allowing his portrayal of Holmes's hauteur to betray his own superiority to the movie. The director, Guy Ritchie, cuts frantically to make you think you're zipping along; but deep into the third act, when a passing religious fanatic held up a sign that read, The End Is Nigh, my heart sank, because I knew it wasn't."