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Non-Review Review: Sherlock Holmes

Well. I enjoyed that probably far more than I should have. If you ever wondered what Bad Boys would look like set in turn-of-the-last-century London and featuring a better director, then look no further. Although it would seem to be your typical old-fashioned action yarn in the mode of The Mummy or Shanghai Noon, the movie really works best as a time-displaced buddy cop film – or even just as a regular bromance. The movie is light, quick and entertaining. What more could you expect?

There's going to be bloody 'ell to pay...

It’s interesting to look at the way that a lot of people dismiss the movie as a bastardised version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective (possibly the most famous sleuth in the world). This ignores the fact that Doyle himself presented the character as a bare knuckle boxer (it’s a plot point in The Sign of the Four) with a knowledge of various fighting styles (which he used in his climactic – and iconic – battle with Professor Moriarty, at least according to his own narration in The Adventure of the Empty House). Holmes was undoubtedly a hugely cerebral character (so much so that many of his phrases have entered the popular lexicon – “when you eliminate the impossible…” and so on), but he was not the delicate upper-class fellow that many of the later adaptations have reduced him too.

There’s perhaps a valid criticism to made that Holmes’ deductive reasoning – his most defining attribute by an stretch of the imagination – are overshadow by the fact that he’s repeatedly hitting and shooting things. It’s true that those expecting an old-fashioned detective mystery (or even a conventional mystery or a mystery at all) are best set to avoid the film, but I quite like how Ritchie illustrates the practical application of the character’s skills. We’re talked through his attacks in slow motion, with each impact carefully calculated – then we’re played the fight back without the narration at real speed. We can see exactly how carefully considered each strike is, even if it would have looked like a stereotypical stunt brawl otherwise. The character of course proves himself a more than adequate sleuth with his reasoned deductions – the movie cheats a bit by typically hiding information from us before Holmes has figured it out, but that’s par for the course. We’d just all feel disappointed if there wasn’t a “Holmes singlehandedly solves everything” scene.

The movie does suffer somewhat from bloated action film syndrome. There’s a desire to fill all the roles required in your typical blockbuster. While this results in some surprisingly well put together set pieces (like a show down at the docks or a death trap in an abattoir), it also means that we must get a love interest subplot thrown in – and Rachel McAdams serves that plot function about as well as she can, delivering stilted dialogue in what I can assume is meant to be a “ye olde New Jersey” accent. Perhaps the producers were worried that – if they didn’t offer a superfluous female character – the movie would be deemed a “sausage fest” for lack of a more eloquent phrase.

Which is a damn shame, because the most interesting part of the film is the Holmes-Watson bromance. It’s a fairly widely-known secret that the Holmes and Watson dynamic was clearly in the heads of the writers of House as they offered up the relationship between Gregory House and John Wilson (hell, House’s apartment is 221), and it’s perhaps the closest (or most modern) pop culture relative to what we are presented with here. Watson is getting married and moving out; Holmes is not happy – as we meet him, he has taken to sulking in his room. Over the course of the film, he skilfully manipulates Watson into spending more time with him, while taking ever opportunity to snipe at his fiance (who has steadfastly refused to meet). Ritchie pitches this as essentially the film’s central love triangle (as the two battle for Watson’s time and affection), and it works far better than the genuine romantic subplot between Holmes and his mysterious former lover.

Perhaps part of the reason is that Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law have a wonderful, weird and unexpected chemistry. The film offers us relatively little insight into their professional working relationship – Holmes is always shown as a step or two ahead of Watson, even in Watson’s own field (medicine) – nor do we get too much of a sense of a working dynamic between the two, other than that Watson cares for Holmes and Holmes won’t admit to enjoying the company of Watson. Neither character is a superbly realised character, but Downey and Law manage that same sort of buddy chemistry which makes those great cop movies work. Neither is at their best here, but they are both thoroughly enjoyable.

The plot really feels like a bit of an afterthought here. The writers seem to have just thrown every single Victorian cliché into a blender and distilled the result. There are a series of murders of young women, evoking the imagery of Jack the Ripper. There are Freemasons at play. The grand plan at work here is a stereotypical “world domination” ploy (which oddly specifies America – perhaps so yankee audiences could get behind Holmes in fighting to stop it). It’s strange that world domination seems to have become an outdated goal for bad guys, and one seldom played straight – except in these sorts of old fashioned romps, where it seems every madman wants to overthrow the British Empire. Maybe world domination was just easier in those days, I don’t know

Still, the movie’s central conflict between mysticism and rationality works really well. It lends the movie a rich, grandiose and even pulpy air which suits the material and (at the risk of alienating some Doyle scholars here) fits the character quite well. I was, in case you were wondering, a big fan of The Hound of the Baskervilles when I was younger. It’s a well-used theme in works focusing on this time, and I won’t pretend that Ritchie’s work offers anything close to the best exploration of it, but it works well in context. Mark Strong continues to add to his already quite impressive “ominous villain” roles. There’s nothing particularly special about his bad guy, the sinisterly-named “Lord Blackwood”, but he’s effective enough as the movie’s bad guy. The CGI is a bit dodgy in places, but Ritchie crafts an effective enough Voctorian London that we forgive the occasionally conspicuous special effects.

Sherlock Holmes is an enjoyable romp. It’s good fun. It’s a nice little adventure which basically bring Holmes into the twenty-first century. Ritchie clearly sees James Bond as an iconic character who bears comparison to the famous detective, and there’s much of the same sort of transitions in play here (indeed, the movie owes quite a bit to the early Bond movies in its flavour and stylings, featuring the equivalent of a Bond opening sequence where we join Holmes mid-case and the villain’s plans which many a Bond villain would sympathise with). It isn’t a cerebral film, it’s just a nice distracting adventure which succeeds in offering two hours worth of entertainment. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Role on the sequel.

6 Responses

  1. Excellent not-review, then. I liked the movie’s bloatedness, because I’ve read some of the stories and it never really felt out of character that he was beating the shit out of people. Ritchie, I guess, at least tries to keep it towards the canon.

    • Thanks. I do think Ritchie appreciated the source material while making some necessary nods towards the audience. As fun as it is to think of Holmes as a great untouchable literary icon, he was basically the 1800s equivalent of pulp cinema – you pick up a Holmes story to be entertained, not to learn the profound truth of the universe.

  2. Outstanding review of the movie. I also enjoyed it probably a little more than I should have. The movie is actually very faithful to Conan Doyle’s original work despite its action spin. I completely agree that both Mary Marstan’s and Rachel McAdams’ characters were added only to make sure people don’t misinterpret Holmes and Watson homoerotic relationship as … ghey.

    Aside from that, my main beef was that the plot felt overly convoluted yet too simplistic for a Sherlock Holmes story. Finally, loved the soundtrack!

    • Yep. Think you hit the nail on the head. Those two characters served the same function that the “wife/girlfriend” and “no chemistry love interest” always serve in buddy cop films – they reassure the audience that the are only “hetrosexual life partners”.

  3. I’ve epistled about House being a reconstituted Sherlock Holmes. The vicodin abuse, the irritable behaviour, the matter of fact crime solving. I never caught the 221 apartment number – I guess I might not have felt so clever if I’d seen that.

    Sherlock Holmes seemed, more than anything, to be a film to showcase Ritchie’s comeback to the fore. For such a constantly adapted character, there wouldn’t be any irrevocable damage with putting it in the kind of modern context that’s seemed to work so well for Shrek. That’s right, I really enjoyed Sherlock Holmes and I’m still comparing it to Shrek!

    • Yep, I agree entirely. I kinda wonder how many people will see the movie and go “That’s just like House!” And, in fairness to Ritchie, I didn’t think he had a spectacle film in him.

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