Sunday, June 6, 2010

Review: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes is a staple of filmed entertainment. A quick look at IMDb.com shows that in the 2000s alone there have been nearly 20 productions for TV and the movies featuring Arthur Conan Doyle's venerable detective (including at least one animated appearance).

Now some boob in movieland had the "brilliant" idea to turn Sherlock Holmes into a superhero or, more to the point, a slovenly James Bond. (I hope you read the sarcasm in between the quotation marks on brilliant.)

Here we get director Guy Ritchie's bloated big-screen mess. This is one slow slog of a movie, one where you either constantly check your watch or, in this case, the DVD counter. Robert Downey Jr. dons the English accent he first used in Chaplin as Holmes, but I didn't care much for his characterization. For today's PG-13 audiences, they removed Holmes' heroin addiction for the more palatable alcoholism and just general bad hygiene. Downey's eyes are normally full of life - check out the first Iron Man film, or The Soloist - but here they seem dead. At least they match the bleak cinematography and set design of the rest of the movie.

Instead of a real personality, the movie turns Holmes into either Batman or Daredevil, both comic book superheroes who have no superhuman powers but are masters of hand-to-hand combat. Downey's Holmes likes to go down to the docks and have a go at smelly greasers who are much bigger than he is. Like Fast Eddie Felson he comes in as an underdog, bets on himself, gets knocked around a bit, then kicks it into high gear to win at the end.

Jude Law plays Dr. John Watson, Holmes friend, sidekick, flatmate, and sometime chronicler. I'm just going to say it: Law is simply too pretty to play the sidekick. He was Gigalo Joe after all. The filmmakers were definitely shooting for that "old married couple" vibe, but the script largely falls short of that. There's no memorable dialogue to speak of. For such a clever man, Holmes doesn't have many clever things to say. Perhaps they should have had David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino or, heck, Kevin Smith take a pass at Holmes' dialogue. If you're going to "reinvent" a 113 year old character, do more than make him a MMA stud. When you think about it, the best interpretation of Sherlock Holmes in the last ten years has been Hugh Laurie's turn as Dr. House on TV's House, M.D. There they left the drug addiction in, and kept the brilliant detective skills, but House is surly and acerbic as hell, by turns insightful, abrasive and funny.

One thing that bothered me is that almost every wide establishing shot looks like it has a CGI matte painting, which means that even though they filmed on the streets of England, the obvious computer work makes it look phony. The average episode of Dr. Who, with a fraction of the budget, feels more authentic! The other thing they did in this reinvention is make Holmes an action hero, and that means action set pieces that are largely augmented by CGI as most of today's action "spectaculars" are wont. It also means the action is largely forgettable. There is a major sequence set at a shipyards with a ship in drydock. Holmes is being attacked by a giant thug who keeps swinging a big hammer that dislodges the beams that are holding a ship in place. Of course enough are knocked out that the ship starts to slowly roll into the water, with Holmes pinned at a precarious spot. While watching this I kept thinking about the great scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with Indy fighting off the giant Nazi under the flying wing airplane. Not only did Indy have to dodge the man's massive fists, but he had to avoid getting run over by the plane's wheels, and, even worse, getting chopped up by the plane's propellers. It was a master work of choreography and editing, punctuated by John Williams' fantastic score. In Sherlock Holmes, we just got to see the big CGI ship slide on by, and Downey and Watson duck to avoid the CGI anchor that whipped by at the end. Big freakin' deal.

There is nothing to recommend in this movie. The casting is all wrong. Aside from Downey and Law, Rachel McAdams makes no impression as Irene Adler, the only woman to make Holmes go weak in the knees. Emily Blunt would have been a better choice. Mark Strong as the Big Bad named Lord Blackwood makes about as much impression as one of the lesser James Bond villains. They gave him some funky dental work and I guess they figured that was a far as they needed to go; he really doesn't register on screen. In fact, the most lively characters are Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) and Constable Clark (William Houston). Hey, there's an idea: do a Sherlock Holmes story told entirely from Lestrade's point of view.

There have been some great interpretations of Sherlock Holmes, including Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Percent Solution and Jeremy Brett's arguably definitive turn in 1980s and 90s TV series. Guy Ritchie's re-imagination take doesn't hold a candle to these interpretations and won't be fondly remembered in the character's long history.

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