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The renegade at Baker Street: “Sherlock Holmes”

January 4, 2010

I am sure that the new big screen treatment of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal detective has already sent Sherlock Holmes purists into fits of apoplexy. Personally, I’m okay with that, since purists are almost always apoplectic about something (there are 007 fans who are upset that Bond’s housekeeper, May, has never been worked into the scripts). Besides, it was high time that Holmes was liberated from the deerstalker-hat (which he never wore in the original stories) and “Elementary, my dear Watson!” (which he never said).  To this end, Robert Downey Jr. is loosed like a wrecking ball on the popular image of Holmes, with the result of creating an interesting, compelling, endlessly watchable new take on a classic hero.

Sherlock Holmes is far from a great story, but it’s a good enough movie. The plot is a hazy mishmash of the occult and secret societies and other vaguely Dan Brown-ish elements. It begins promisingly enough, with a pulse-accelerating opening sequence in which Holmes—one step ahead of the police—is joined by Watson (Jude Law) in busting a secret ceremony presided over by a snaggle-toothed baddie named Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), the highlight of which seems to be a human sacrifice. Alas, the bust is hardly the end of Blackwood, as, on the eve of his execution, he warns Holmes that he has loosed supernatural forces, the likes of which the human cannot comprehend. A little while later, he promptly comes back life. And the mystery presents itself.

Complicating Holmes’s investigation into the resurrection of Lord Blackwell is the re-appearance of his old flame and nemesis Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who presents him with a wholly  different case—or so it seems. When the missing person, Irene hired Holmes to track down is found buried in Blackwell’s grave, the cases merge and plunge into a (not-terribly-convincing) London underworld of neo-Masonic organizations, and black magic.

On the domestic front, Watson is preparing to move out of 221B Baker Street and in with his fiancé—a development that sits about as well with Holmes as hang gliding would with Rain Man.

Well, the story is certainly nothing special. True, Holmes tangled with cults and secret sects on more than one occasion—owing to Doyle’s fascination with debunking such things (at least before his wife’s death, after which he embraced them a bit too zealously). Unfortunately, 100 years of cinema have made those tropes a bit musty. Yeah, yeah, robes, and altars and curved daggers…whatever. I would have much preferred to see Holmes tracking down a more conventional criminal or at least entangled in a slightly more realistic web of intrigue.  

Strong, with his Shakespearian oratory and air of general menace makes a great bad guy, and the film uses him like Bond-ian supervillain. Unfortunately, it’s a Roger Moore-era supervillian. He struts around in an anachronistic, proto-Nazi leather jacket and makes proclamations about how he will rule the world, but doesn’t really do anything until his final knockdown with Holmes.  Likewise, Irene Adler’s Victorian-era femme fatale isn’t really given anything do but to engage in some soggy banter with Holmes. McAdams and Downey do their best with their underwritten scenes, but they’re not even allowed a kiss, so it’s sort of hard to generate much sexual tension.

Of course, the movie’s saving grace is Downey, who, as he did with Iron Man, salvages an otherwise-unremarkable loud, dumb action, and infuses it with wit and airiness. His Holmes is still a master of observation and deduction, but also rash, rude, selfish, egocentric, and unstable. It would be easy enough to simply recycle his Tony Stark to liven up the proceedings, but Downey hints at some deeper, almost Asperger-ish malfunctions in Holmes’s personality, such as when he sabotages a dinner with Watson and his fiancé. It would be enough to just allow the meltdown to play out, but after he’s had wine dumped on him and been abandoned by his dinner guests, Holmes nonchalantly eats his dinner. And Downey lets his gaze drift off into the distance, suggesting some mental refuge his Holmes has retreated to. He does something similar in one of his scenes with Adler. It’s stuff like this that really make you wish the script was more tailored to Downey’s take on the character and not appealing to 13 year-old moviegoers. Jude Law–who I must admit to not liking very much — makes a fine straight man, and the banter he and Holmes share, is worth the price of admission alone.

The publicity machine for Sherlock Holmes has soft-sold director Guy Ritchie’s involvement, and that’s probably for the best, given that his direction is, at best, indistinct, and at worst, a liability. While it’s impossible to say how much of this new world of Sherlock Holmes is his and how much is Downey’s (and how much is owed to Lionel Wigram, the film’s producer, who pushed to reboot the Holmes mythology), but it’s only Ritchie’s fault that the action sequences are largely uninvolving. This is one of those movies where people shoot a lot, but no one hits anything or seems otherwise adversely affected by gunfire. And a big explosion set-piece is downright tedious.

Reinventing The Great Detective as a boozing, brawling, brilliant, bohemian was a masterstroke, and like the reboot of Star Trek offers hope of a smart, satisfying franchise possibility. I would much rather see another Sherlock Holmes installment than a Terminator or X-Men. Let’s just hope the next chapter puts a bit more effort into the mystery and dumps Guy Ritchie.

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