Synopsis: The game is afoot – and astounding! Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law put memorable imprints on the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a bold reimagining that makes the famed sleuth a daring man of action as well as a peerless man of intellect. Director Guy Ritchie helms the excitement, reintroducting the great detective to the world. Meet the new Sherlock Holmes.
I’m not attached to Sherlock Holmes in any true way. I don’t recall ever reading any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, and my only image of Holmes is the conventional one found in pop culture and that I’ve crossed from time to time on television and in motion pictures.
However, when I heard that Guy Ritchie was directing a Sherlock Holmes film, I was immediately concerned: the guy who directed ‘Swept Away’ is going to make a Sherlock Holmes film?
Nah, I’m just kidding. Everyone makes mistakes. And I’ve quite enjoyed Ritchie’s ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ and ‘Snatch’. However, he has a tendency for kinetic motion pictures, a stylish approach to filmmaking that doesn’t seem natural to the slow-going 19th century that Sherlock Holmes exists in.
When I saw the first still pictures of Robert Downey, jr. as Holmes, showing off his ripped torso in the middle of a fist fight, I immediately tuned out: this was not the Holmes I have come to expect and would have wanted to see. In my mind, not only does Downey, jr. not manifest the character physically, but Holmes is all intellect – hardly brawn.
Inexplicable to me, the film was a sensation. I kept hearing that it was nothing like the Sherlock Holmes that we know, but that it was an exciting movie and was well worth seeing. So, despite my initial aversion, I decided to put it on my radar – albeit keeping it quite low on my list of things to watch. I got my hands on the Blu-ray for dirt cheap at about the same time as I got the Billy Wilder boxed set that featured The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and decided to take the plunge.
I tried to watch this without thinking about Sherlock Holmes as I know him. I knew ahead of time that this would be a bastardization of the original character, so I tried to watch the film as though Holmes and Watson were different characters altogether. Unfortunately, I was unable to ignore the discrepancies; they bothered me to no end and, every time their names were mentioned it highlighted the issues.
And yet, without Holmes and Watson as fictional anchors, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ would have been a generic (read: bland) action film. This is a crazy, adrenalized film that barely stops to let Holmes reflect and piece puzzles together: nah, he’s too busy destroying things, beating people to a pulp, running, jumping, dodging bullets and escaping explosions. Great. Just great. Basically, one has to accept Holmes as Houdini, MacGuyver and John McClane thrown together; his elementary attributes are lost in a blaze of fury.
Given how unrelated to the source material this version of Sherlock Holmes appears to be, it’s quite clear that it could have been any old story with any old characters. It might even have been originally intended for a different project and coarsely adapted for this setting. Who knows. This leads me to conclude that the only reason to make a film set in this time with these characters is because of their marketability – no-name characters would surely have proven a disaster in this context.
Unsurprisingly, the highlights of this film are the audio-visual aspects of the experience. The sound design was especially notable; it was super vibrant, dynamic and realistic (gunshots excepted, as they wouldn’t have sounded so loud back in the day). The Blu-ray demonstrated its power impressively. The visuals were amazing. In light of how weak they can get, I was stunned to see how well-entrenched the CGI was. The muted, inky tones were also perfect choices for the film’s look, and the epic scale of the film was quite pleasing.
But this scale got out of hand at times. When Holmes and Watson end up destroying a ship that is under construction at the docks, I couldn’t help but shake my head. This would have been considered a HUGE disaster in this era, and it would have been a headline for weeks after, probably ruining both of their reputations. Here, it is just another set piece. Also, the ridiculous notion of chemical warfare is introduced via a remote-controlled device that defies all logic, given the period it takes place in.
Now, it is my understanding that Holmes facing magical elements is something that is a natural extension of the books. I could be wrong, of course, but this is my understanding. However, I didn’t know this previous to this viewing and it felt wrong to me: logic vs. superstition? Really? That seemed to defy the whole principle of Sherlock Holmes stories. However, I realize now that the key problem is that at no time does Holmes question this magic: he simply goes around picking up invisible clues but never even puts it in question for the audience. So we are left thinking that it’s an action film with magic in it. Ugh.
Robert Downey, jr.’s incarnation of the character is blasphemy, of course. We all expected that early on. It’s not his fault – it’s the way it was written. However, he employed an accent that was very similar to the one he used in ‘Natural Born Killers’ – it annoyed me then and it did now (even though they are not exactly the same). At no time did I believe that this man was British, nor that he was Sherlock Holmes. He was just some guy pretending to be Sherlock Holmes – he wasn’t the real thing. That was a huge issue.
Conversely, Jude Law was most excellent as “Action” Watson. Whether or not he played the character to type is another matter (again, I’m no connoisseur!), but the way he played him fit the film and fit the dynamic between our two leads. Law usually leaves me totally indifferent, but he’s by far the stand out in this film. I had heard that he was very good in ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and I am in agreement with that assessment. To me, he’s the star of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and has made Watson more appealing than Holmes himself.
I had also heard that there was some homosexual subtext in the film. In my estimation, there is so little of it that I wonder what the fuss is all about: there is one scene that could be misconstrued as suggesting that they have a gay relationship – but it’s short and meant to be humourous. Having said this, at no point is there a true understanding of why Holmes and Watson even spend time together: there’s an apparent feeling of contempt between them burying any respect that they do have. So what gives? We may never know.
On a completely different topic, I want to address the matter of Watson’s dog. This will seem like a shrill complaint, but I was concerned with the attitude espoused towards it. Downey, jr.’s Holmes continuously drugs the poor pooch up to test various solutions. The thing is, beyond the obvious animal cruelty argument, my concern is that this is done for the sake of cheap laughs (that and the requisite dog farts ). I wonder what kind of message this sends, that animal welfare isn’t of concern when gits and shiggles are the trade-off. To me, this seems irresponsible.
Beyond this, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ is a perfectly innocuous film in the tradition of flashy and stylish action pieces. It is a celebration of violence over intellect, despite any arguments to the contrary – which is highly ironic, given the origins the material and intentions of the author.
‘Sherlock Holmes’ is nothing exceptional, aside from its… ahem… unique and unconventional interpretation.