by Mel Valentin
Arthur Conan Doyle’s singular creation (and the first "private consulting detective"), Sherlock Holmes has been a significant part of popular culture for more than one hundred years. Holmes appeared in four novellas and fifty-six short stories written by Doyle. That, of course, was before Holmes began appearing on radio programs, serials, and films (none written by Doyle), most notably the film series starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes. Since then, Holmes has appeared in countless novels, films, television series, including the well-regarded mid-80s series starring Jeremy Brett, and now, just in time to close out the oughts (or the noughts, depending on your preference), the Guy Ritchie directed ("RocknRolla," "Revolver," "Swept Away," "Snatch," "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels") "Sherlock Holmes." As surprising to read as it's to write, "Sherlock Holmes" is a four-quadrant blockbuster wannabe done right.Ritchie and his screenwriters (Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg [working from producer Lionel Wigram’s story]) smartly decided to skip Holmes and Watson's origin story and kick off what he and his producers hope will be a lucrative franchise with an all-new adventure. Ritchie assumed moviegoer familiarity with Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. John Watson’s (Jude Law) history as two halves of a crimefighting duo. Taking cues from the Indiana Jones series, the James Bond series, and Young Sherlock Holmes, a sadly overlooked, under-seen pastiche, Ritchie kicks off Sherlock Holmes at a fever pitch, as Holmes and Watson, with reluctant ally Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), three or four steps behind, race through London in an effort to stop Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), an Aleister Crowley-like aristocrat/cult leader from sacrificing a young woman in an occult ritual.
"Not your great-great-great-grandfather's super-sleuth."
Three months later, a brooding Holmes hides inside the cluttered apartments he rents from Mrs. Hudson (Geraldine James) at 221B Baker Street. Without a case or puzzle to occupy his restless, agitated, hyperactive mind, Holmes is lost (behavior, it should be added, true to Doyle’s creation). The end of his working relationship with Watson also looms large. After years of rooming with Holmes, Watson’s set to move on to wedded semi-bliss to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). Sublimating his emotions (and maybe, just maybe non-platonic feelings for Watson) and eager for an adrenaline kick, Holmes participates in shirtless, brutal, bare-knuckle brawls. Lestrade calls Watson and Holmes back by Scotland Yard, Watson for his medical expertise, Holmes to witness Blackwood’s execution (at Blackwood’s insistence).
When an emotionally distraught groundskeeper claims he saw a resurrected Blackwood, Scotland Yard puts Holmes and Watson back on the case. Holmes’ former nemesis (and romantic interest), Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), appears in Holmes’ flat and asks him to track down a missing man. True to her reputation and Holmes’ experience, Adler may (or may not) have a hidden motive for finding the missing man. As an excitable Holmes and a reluctant Watson pursue the truth behind Blackwood’s apparent resurrection, they invariably run into henchmen eager to stop them, including a hulking, hard-to-kill Frenchman inspired by the Jaws character in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, and uncover the potential involvement of a secret society of England’s wealthiest and most powerful men and an anti-government conspiracy.
Purists will complain with some justification that Ritchie and Downey, Jr. give us a Holmes that barely resembles Doyle’s creation, at least not how he’s been popularly interpreted over the last century. While Doyle gave Holmes a background in martial arts and Watson extols Holmes’ skills with various weapons, Doyle’s Holmes is a thinker first and foremost, rarely relying on violence when subterfuge and his rhetorical skills will suffice to obtain the same goal. Ritchie’s Holmes may be an action hero, but he’s an action hero in the Indiana Jones-mold, mixing brains, brawn, and banter. Reusing narrative tricks perfected in earlier films, Ritchie suggests Holmes’ mental process before he attempts to incapacitate a foe by visualizing every step in slow motion, accompanied by helpful voiceover narration, seconds before Holmes carries out his mental plan to perfection in real time.
Ritchie’s Holmes, however, is still just as smart, clever, and arrogant as earlier incarnations. With Watson, more a partner than the expository device (or in the case of the Rathbone series, the object of ridicule) he’s been in the past, Holmes proves to be an imperfect, fallible character, but like Indiana Jones, relentless in his pursuit of the truth and the villain (or villains). The Holmes and Watson we meet in Ritchie’s interpretation bicker like an old married couple, but despite their differences and Holmes co-dependency on Watson, they’re also genuine friends, eager to challenge each other even as they rush to each other’s aid. While Ritchie imbues Holmes and Watson's relationship with homoerotic subtext (difficult to avoid given their shared living quarters and close friendship), he keeps the subtext in check through the presence of Adler (for Holmes) and Mary (for Watson)."Sherlock Holmes" has its share of flaws, though. A too-long running time isn’t as serious a problem as the sketchy, underwritten relationship between Holmes and Adler. Apparently, Holmes and Adler’s relationship was minimized during editor to keep the running time in check. If that’s the case, perhaps the extended or director’s cut we’ll inevitably see on DVD and on Blu-Ray will flesh out their relationship. Ritchie could (and probably should) have trimmed down the explanatory epilogue. It’s necessary only in the context of the sequel-ready ending (which, like "Batman Begins" four years ago, sets up the next film’s villain). Ritchie captures a gritty, grimy London with a combination of visual and practical effects, but he’s often let done by the CG effects artists who created 1880s London (especially in the last climactic scene).
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=18367&reviewer=402
originally posted: 12/25/09 19:51:00