Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie, with Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, and Rachel McAdams, 2009.
(Swans - January 25, 2010) I can just imagine the story conference that preceded the latest cinematic incarnation of Sherlock Holmes.
Director: What can we do that's really different; that will really blow the public's mind?
First Writer: How about a black Sherlock Holmes who is clandestinely a hermaphrodite?
Second Writer: That's a possibility.
First Writer: Or how about a blind Sherlock Holmes who has a highly developed sense of smell that enables him to solve all his cases using only his olfactory sense?
Second Writer: Maybe...maybe.....
Director: Look, we know what the young moviegoers want -- Action, Explosions, Violence, and Mayhem. Why not make Holmes a kind of limey Batman-figure who can beat the shit out of anyone who crosses him? A two-fisted, karate-styled muscle-man who can outmatch any contender? A sleuth that's ninety percent brawn and ten percent cunning? A real ball-busting, two-fisted detective that can punch his way out of any danger?
(A reflective silence ensues.)
First & 2nd Writers: I think you've nailed it, Guy. A revolutionary concept that every red-blooded, soft-headed, dopey teenager can call their own! What a picture that would be!
Guy Ritchie, one of the most obvious and intellectually barren directors to emerge from the British cinema has proven that no sooner has some filmic airhead demonstrated that a film can reach a true nadir, some yobbo suddenly appears to drag it down one step lower.
What is most repellent in Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is not so much the flagrant witlessness of his choices and gaucheness of his attempts to shock, but the assumption that in transforming Holmes from a cerebral sleuth into Jackie Chan, he is devising a revolutionary new character based on Conan Doyle's invention that is every whit as engrossing as the original. What made Holmes engrossing, both in the Conan Doyle prototype and the films in which Basil Rathbone perfectly nailed the startling intellect of the man, was an ability to unravel mysteries that corresponded to our own sense of discovery in regard to the enigmas and puzzles that beset us in our daily lives.
When we grasped Holmes's insightful discoveries about good and evil, true and false, guilty and innocent, he was paralleling real events and real people that moved amongst us. They were fictional mysteries, true -- but always tended towards demystification, thereby providing a certain moral clarity to our lives. It was fiction that was enlightening fact. This was as true for the stories of Conan Doyle as it was the several Holmes films that featured actors such as Clive Brook, Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing, Ian Richardson, Robert Stephens, Nicole Williamson, etc. The latest contender, Robert Downey Jr., has mastered the British accent and the air of aristocratic superiority, but by turning him into a karate warrior he asks to be praised for his physical acumen rather than his powers of detection. In consequence, the mental cunning of the man is diminished and we feel some physicalized behemoth has taken over his soul.
It is an easy enough trick to play -- turn Superman entirely into Clark Kent and prevent him from ever divesting himself of his meek and gawkish characteristics and you have robbed the character of the dynamism that made him a superhero. A few attempts at brittle wit from Downey's Holmes fall like boulders onto concrete. We know that what is really important about the character is not his intellect or his penetrating brain-power but the fact that he can whip the ass of any brawny contender that attempts to overpower him. In short, we are being asked to laud his physical prowess rather than his deductive powers -- and that drains the character of what is most characteristic about him.
The plot is a transparent fabrication -- the violence, arbitrary and hedonistic, the transformation of character, a pointless substitute for what is lost in the exchange, and the entire collaboration of fatuous writers and misguided director underscores the wretchedness of their collective taste and the obviousness of their goals.
Jude Law's Watson in this version is every bit as pugilistic as Holmes himself -- and so the comedy of a footling Watson always being check-mated by the Great Sleuth is entirely lost. In its place, there appears to be the aroma of a bitchy gay cordiality between the exasperated doctor and the troublesome sleuth. Again, an innovation with diminishing returns. An announced marriage between Watson and a hypersensitive fiancée seems almost arbitrary as that particular plot-strand delivers little and goes nowhere. Mark Strong as the ghostlike, arch villain of the piece is subtly frightening and his low-key performance, reminiscent of the spooky Christopher Lee, something of a relief given the obstreperous violence that pervades the Watson/Holmes relationship. Rachel McAdams, a talented and seductive rival sleuth to Sherlock intrudes some welcome sex appeal into a film which badly needs another dimension to keep its wobbly plot afloat.
For the sake of full disclosure, I should add that I am the author of a play entitled Sherlock's Last Case that went from Los Angeles to Broadway in a production starring Frank Langella. But those who feel my animus against the film is in some way motivated by any sense of rivalry would be sorely mistaken. I was, and remain, a devoted fan of the Rathbone/Sherlock films and was a great admirer of past Sherlocks, particularly the aforementioned Jeremy Brett, Robert Stephens, and Nicole Williamson. Rathbone came closest to capturing the haughty superiority of Conan Doyle's supercilious Holmes as did Nigel Bruce his slow-witted Watson. True that enthusiasm suggests a traditionalist approach to the legend, but what is offered here is change for change's sake, which is neither smart nor innovative, but only novel and tasteless.
The most frightening part of Ritchie's film occurs in the last few moments when the characters seem to be planting the possibility of a sequel yet to come regarding an encounter with the nefarious Professor Moriarty. That inference, the terrifying notion of another Ritchie farrago, truly makes the blood grow cold and sends a shiver down one's spine. A frightening prospect that we can only pray never comes to fruition.
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