New on DVD: Sherlock Holmes

by Joel Bocko

Also out on DVD this week, previously reviewed: An Education, about a schoolgirl's coming-of-age in early 60s London, and The Baader-Meinhof Complex, the true story of the Red Army Faction, a group of radical terrorists in West Germany.

He never says "Elementary, my dear Watson" and never once dons the infamous double-billed hat. He smokes a pipe, occasionally anyway, yet trades unflappability for a frenetic messiness which allows his peerless skills of deduction to remain the calm at the center of the storm. Remaining a bachelor, he nonetheless has a love interest, a criminal to boot; but he does not let his heart distract his mind (shades of "I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck."). He retains a faith in the remarkable powers of reason to knock down walls and illuminate the hazy, even in the face of a supernatural foe. It's Sherlock Holmes, all right -and that we accept Robert Downey, Jr.'s reinterpretation of the character (or is the word now "reboot" - speaking of which: a "reboot" of Jurassic Park? Seriously?? But I digress...) indicates the degree to which some fundamental aspect of Arthur Conan Doyle's sleuth transcends his common pop cultural trappings. Downey, director Guy Ritchie, and a bevy of screenwriters bend and twist Holmes with enough force to make Gumby snap, yet Sherlock remains Sherlock.

The movie is a good deal of fun; hardly perfect, a bit glib in the ways it necessitates certain mutations, but that comes with the territory. Because a blockbuster these days must have action, the brilliant detective is now a fierce fighter too, and not only when chasing down the baddies - in his free time he engages in bare-fisted boxing matches, keeping his cool until his opponent spits on him (at which point, he still keeps his cool, while turning that analytical remove to his advantage, calculating and executing a succession of moves which will leave the other fighter "emotionally scarred for six months."). As indicated in that parenthetical elaboration, the action is made to fit the overall design in clever fashion: early clashes slow down and anticipate the punches, kicks, ducks, et cetera, as Sherlock and even the dutiful Watson (Jude Law, embracing his suave priggishness as all his best roles do) use superior intellectual firepower to defeat villains three or four times their size. It may be a ridiculous world in which brain not only beats but facilitates brawn, but it's a charming world nonetheless.

Sherlock's opposite number, in this adventure, is an aristocratic sorcerer named Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Blackwood is captured in the opening minutes of the movie, tried, hanged, pronounced dead, and promptly resurrected. He has promised death and destruction and soon the heroes are up to their necks in secret societies, graceful femme fatales (Rachel McAdams plays Sherlock's ex-lover, ambiguously back in town), and apocalyptic technological threats. It's up to Holmes to determine how Blackwood's reappearance has occurred, and how - or indeed, if - such a force beyond nature can be defeated. In these times, with the much publicized battles between faith and atheism, fundamentalism and Darwinism, the story topically confronts the rational with the irrational, the magical. It's bewildering at times, yet it ultimately pays off, making the mystery, if anything, more enjoyable in retrospect than while it's unfolding. In addition to introducing an element of the supernatural into the plot, the screenplay replaces the gestures of a whodunit for the trappings of a howhedunit, with mixed results.

We miss the cool, enjoyable frisson of conventional sleuthing - searching for a suspect is one of the supreme pleasures of this genre - and it doesn't help that Blackwood's a bit of a cipher. Strong has regal bearing but seems hollow inside; at first glance his eyes smolder with the intensity of Andy Garcia in his better parts, but ultimately he lacks the gravitas to hold the screen. The mystical mumbojumbo is initially intriguing but grows tiresome when it becomes explicit and absurdly overdrawn. Batman Begins suffered from a similar case of freshman overreach - when rebooting a franchise, the (re-)creators always attempt too much. Fearing that they won't catch our interest, they set the stakes so absurdly high that it becomes difficult to accept the plot with the necessary modicum of sincerity. Here we have not just the destruction of Parliament in the offing, but the recapture of the United States by Britain and a hidden class of Illuminati. We're a long way from the Baskervilles.

But plot is secondary to character in a venture like this, and here the film succeeds. This Sherlock Holmes is a mess, except where it matters most - inside his head. An eccentric bachelor who fires pistols into his wall, drugs his dog, and is rude to friends' fiancees, Holmes is the exempler of the so-ADD-he's-Zen school of sleuthing. There was always something asocial about the detective's bemused obsession with logic and politely arrogant manner of ease, and for an obvious age, Sherlock Holmes makes this impossible to miss. Downey has a ball, and ensures that we do too. Law plays along gamely. Sherlock's relationship with Watson stretches contemporary bromance to the very limits of just-kidding homosexuality - his obsession with keeping the good doctor in the bachelor pad and in the business knows no bounds, and one suspects that McAdams was brought in just to assure us that Sherlock's really not into dudes, thank you very much. Another in the long line of heroines who are carefully set up as self-reliant and savvy, only so this can be subverted when a damsel in distress is needed, neither McAdams nor her character bring much to this affair; the movie would have been stronger sticking to its homosocial undercurrents (though apparently, Doyle provided Sherlock with a love interest early in his series as well; or at least, an early film adaptation did - I can't remember which. No Holmes am I.)

Anyway, without much hesitation, I can recommend the movie. Its weaknesses are around the periphery, and its central feature - Downey's performance as Sherlock - is solid. I suspect that a sequel will be even better, especially if it settles down and focuses on a seemingly more mundane yet ultimately more rewarding mystery (please, though, eschew the customary second-time-around pathos; a sensitive Bond is iffy, a touchy-feely Holmes is positively undesirable). At any rate, this is a good start. Evoke an atmospheric Victorian world, give us problems to solve, and most of all, provide us with a memorable, effective, impressive Sherlock Holmes, and you'll have done your job as an interpreter of the material. It's elem... eh, never mind.

5 comments:

  1. Nice review! I've been thinking of checking this one out. I do like Robert Downey Jr. and he has a tendency to enliven anything he's in. After all, he made IRON MAN more fun than anyone expected and looks like he delivers the goods in this one as well.

    And even though it's hip to hate him, I do like most Guy Ritchie's films. I thought ROCK N ROLLA was a nice return to form and am happy that this film was a big fat hit for him.

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  2. Oddly enough, I haven't seen any other Ritchie films, except in fragments. Somehow I avoided Snatch & Lock, Stock during their heyday, and I don't think was at all unintentional. Anyway, this one was fun.

    By the way, I was reminded tonight that Holmes used cocaine - would have been interesting (for numerous reasons, of course) had the film reminded us of this. Then again, it didn't need to be explicit: Downey at his most manic suggests enough for us to draw our own conclusions.

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  3. I was really won over by SHERLOCK HOLMES. And despite its updating the film is true to many of the biographical literary details of the character (if not necessarily the tone).

    McAdams, by the way, does play the female Holmes was intrigued with in a few of Doyle's novels.

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  4. I seem to recall reading your review a while back and learning as much - which is why I noted that Holmes had a love interest in the past. Indeed, I haven't read much Doyle and I don't think I've seen any of the film adaptations - except perhaps fragments here and there (like with the Ritchie films, come to think of it). Funny, though, how one can have such a firm notion of a character almost purely through osmosis (though of course this conception is often limited).

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