Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Saturday, January 16, 2010



Like James Bond and Batman, Sherlock Holmes is the latest character to get the fashionable reboot. This has proven to be a successful approach both financially and critically as the 2.0 versions of those classic characters have retained their core essence while allowing for changes that appeal to modern audiences who have seen it all. Even when they haven't. I'm sure many have little more than second hand knowledge of the Sherlock Holmes character and some may even think he was an actual person. Unfortunately he was not. But he and his world were so powerfully conceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that what was nothing more than ink on the page began to take root in the human imagination as flesh. Holmes, like Dracula or Tarzan, could not be bound within the pages of a story but rather became the property of the world, of popular culture, and what many take to be the very essence of Holmes is not so much Doyle but the the work of his adapters-Sidney Paget who drew the original illustrations featuring the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape, William Gillette who brought Holmes to the stage, and Universal Studios whose series of films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce even pitted the great detective against the Nazis.

I am a huge fan of the Holmes stories but I don't cry foul when I see him changed for the screen. I really like many of the films in the Rathbone series and certainly enjoyed his take on the character. I liked what Peter Cushing did with the part in the Hammer films version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and even enjoyed Christopher Plummer's slightly more emotional Holmes in Bob Clark's underrated Murder By Decree. Besides, as far as I am concerned the definitive version of the stories has already been produced. No one is likely to better the Granada TV productions starring the late Jeremy Brett with their intense fidelity to the character and letter of Doyle's stories. But that was a TV show and this current offering is meant to be a motion picture franchise. So, I fully expected a great many changes. In other words, I went in with an open mind.

It shut pretty quickly.

But not because Holmes was now a two fisted action hero who spends his spare time in cage matches. And not because Watson was a master of stick fighting. And surely not because Guy Ritchie applied all his Lock, Stock techniques to introduce the Victorian Era to some Rocknrolla. In all honesty this is some of Ritchie's most effective visual filmmaking ever. Besides, it's clear that he was nothing more than the hired help here.

No, the problem really wasn't with Holmes, Watson, Ritchie, Downey Jr, Jude Law or even Madonna. And the concept of this "Sherlock Holmes 2.0" wasn't the problem. The actual movie itself was the problem. See, there was none. The film called Sherlock Holmes that has been raking in the money at the box office this Christmas season does not really exist at all. It's an illusion. A Jedi Mind Trick. The film fades in...well, explodes in... and immediately plunges you into all this crazy action involving cloaked occultists, women strapped to altars, and Holmes and Watson as a Victorian dynamic duo rescuing the damsel in distress at the last second.

And that's about it for the next 2 hours.

It's a movie with all the fine side dishes you would ever want for a Thanksgiving dinner only someone forgot the turkey. Somewhere in the middle of the 110th chase scene you start to realize that you really have no idea why Holmes is chasing these people or if he's running away from them. Or why Holmes is even there. Watson you are less sure of since he's supposed to be getting married or something. But on the movie goes, Hans Zimmer tap dancing his jaunty Morricone-influenced score over all the cracks in the structure, Ritchie flying his camera all around a CG London, and Downey Jr trying to distract you from everything through sheer performance. He almost achieves it too the way he did with Tony Stark in Iron Man, making you forget you were watching nothing more than a CG robot flying around for almost the entire running time. But in this Sherlock he was defeated by both the weight of nothingness and the unwillingness to allow the film to coast on nothingness.

If the film just dropped all pretense of the supposed story about evil Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) and his resurrection from the grave and just gave the film a simpler mystery to follow then the audience could relax and enjoy the banter and shenanigans of Holmes and Watson going around London conducting a boy's adventure. It could allow the actors to drive the movie the way Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo and Hatari did. Both films were designed as a kind of feature length sitcom-focusing entirely on "fun and games" between characters loosely tied to a central plot. It was a lesson that Hawks learned from making The Big Sleep, realizing that all that damn Chandler plotting was getting in the way of his good movie. "Who the hell cares who killed Owen Taylor?"

Much of this film reminds me of the way several of the '70s Bond films were supposedly made-random action scenes shot with stuntmen to capitalize on snow for ski chases or whatever would later be stitched into the story via closeups of Roger Moore. The screenwriter's challenge was to figure out how to tie them together. Here, screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham shovel the largest pile of BS they could find to tie up the loose ends of their stream of consciousness narrative and just put it into Sherlock's mouth in the "big ol' mystery reveal" climax. Objects randomly chosen throughout the film are connected by Holmes like the worst game ever played of Clue-

"It was Lord Blackwood in the graveyard with the raven's beak and Col. Mustard's revolver. See. I'm such a brilliant detective I spent a few hours in the editing room watching the whole movie over again and this is the only reasonable explanation I can offer. Remember once you've eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Even this total bullshit."

Directed by Guy Ritchie
Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr, Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Kelly Reilly
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Running Time: 128 minutes
Rating: PG-13


Ishmael said...

So you didn't like it?

Brian said...

It was pretty disappointing as Downey Jr and Law were good working with what they had and made you wish that they chucked the script and instead shot any random story by Conan Doyle. I'm completely serious-just toss THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES in the air and whatever it opens to would be better material. That said, even that crazy convoluted William Gillette play we know well would've been better. It would at least be as openly confounding.

Anonymous said...

I was going to post my own review but you said everything I was thinking. Iam just sorry I did not read the review before I went to see it. I was so bored and if I had not come with others I would have walked out.

Anonymous said...

I just have to say that i thought this one to be more of setting up for the sequel than an actual movie,
It did wrap everything up in the end and showed Moriarty's involvement in the whole debacle

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I read your comments before seeing this. I was glad for Downey's Golden Globe win ( his speech was entertaining ) and was curious about this interp of Holmes/Watson. I do agree that the BBC prods with Jeremy Brett are the ultimate visual versions of the stories, not straying from the original, but visually enriching. Too bad stuff has to be all tricked out with action that makes for a disappointment. Anne, film lover

Brian said...

Thanks for your comments and I agree that the film did indeed set itself up as a franchise with the introduction of Moriarty. Downey and his wife producer Susan Levin Downey made the film with the hope of owning a piece of a profitable series.

I was also pleased with Downey's Golden Globe win-I think he's a terrific actor and he keeps the film from being completely abysmal.

sd card said...

Guy Ritchie's film arrives with the bristling, cocksure, indefatigable force of a movie preordained as a franchise-in-waiting. This is pop Hollywood filmmaking, but not something anyone should feel the need to think about, or see more than once.

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Anonymous said...

honestly this is a pretty terrible review you were more all over the place than the film was. Half the stuff you said was about other films and you fail to explain most points you brought up or reasons as to why some things is bad, but thats your opinion based on your personal preferences.

Anonymous said...

Smart and entertaining movie. I loved this movie as it was thrilling, acting was top notch and very stylish. I would recommend everyone to watch this movie for sure.
Sherlock Holmes