A little too elementary, my dear Watson
A little too elementary, my dear Watson
Modernizing stodgy old franchises has become old-hat lately. Sure some classics can hold up to modern standards, but don’t expect large audiences to be flocking back to it constantly when they can just get a new flavor of the year. Take Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek (2009) for example. Khan, despite being released about 28 years ago, remains a fun science-fiction adventure that holds up reasonably because I view it relatively in the context of 1982. I doubt the average newcomer to the movie would do the same though. Trek ’09, on the other hand, takes the core elements that make the Star Trek label so endearing and gives them a fresh jolt of modern style. In fact, the new Trek did such a great job at balancing the old with the new that I ended up seeing it as the better of the two, even with Khan’s reputation as the best piece of Trek ever committed to film prior to the new one’s release. That balance was the key to its success, but what if it had teetered too much in one direction? Had it been too old-fashioned, the filmmakers would’ve risked alienating outsiders who “just don’t get it.” Had it been too pumped up for modern audiences, and there would’ve been the risk of disappointing devoted fans. Well Sherlock Holmes seems like it was too afraid that it might hit the old route, so the powers behind it pushed a little more towards the modern. Does it work?
Plot Synopsis: In the opening scene, Holmes and his partner/best friend Watson stop Lord Blackwood, a former member of Parliament turned black magic-wielding occult leader, from committing another murder of a young girl. Blackwood is arrested and subsequently hanged, yet days later the graveyard caretaker swears that he has apparently returned from the dead. During the course of his investigation, Holmes' crosses paths with Irene Adler, a beautiful American con artist who he once loved many years before. Holmes must not only contend with Irene, who appears to be working for an unknown third party, but also with the imminent break-up of his partnership with Watson, who is getting married and moving out of the 221B Baker Street flat they've shared as their living quarters for some time. Can Holmes solve the mystery of Blackwood’s reanimation and that of his personal life?
Well, what does work for certain is the pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Downey plays Sherlock as a character that is miles away from the polite, dapper Holmes’ that have been shown in years past. His Holmes is a total mess, one who drinks heavily, always appears scruffy, and leaves his room in a scramble that only he can decipher. But Downey believably juxtaposes the gruff with a superior intellect and keen eye for details. Rather than rushing headlong into a brawl, Holmes thinks out the sequence of carefully synchronized events before striking (more on that later). But while Downey was quite an inspired choice to play Holmes, Law had quite a few disbelievers to overcome with his different interpretation of Watson. Thankfully, Law acquits himself comfortably into the role, showcasing a much more argumentive and physically leaner side to the character that we’ve never really seen before. Rather than playing second fiddle and watching the master sleuth do his thing, Watson frequently gets in on the action and exchanges verbal barbs with Holmes, ensuring that he won’t be shoved to the sidelines. The chemistry between the odd pair is palpable, making it apparent just how good friends they are.
Less believable is the chemistry between Downey and Rachel McAdams, who plays Holmes’ old flame Irene Adler. Admittedly, the faults in the character lie more on the script level, but there’s something about McAdams that doesn’t really click. Maybe it’s the very noticeable age difference between the two that proves to be distracting, but I’m not really sure. What is also pretty blatant about the character is that her only real purpose in the plot is to be a damsel in distress and provide the setup for Holmes’ next nemesis, Batman Begins style. Another character that suffers more from a lack of development rather than the actor’s performance is Lord Blackwood. Mark Strong does the best with his creepy looks and leering, eerie eyes to provide a sense of menace and evil, but Blackwood is off-screen for too many long stretches of screen-time, especially during the second act, to leave much of an impression. There were times where I almost forgot that the movie was supposed to be a detective story, instead diverting off course with too many side distractions and action scenes.
Which might have been fine if the action scenes had been more smoothly integrated within the tone of the picture and didn’t repeatedly try to push the envelope in terms of size and effects. When the action stays small in scale, such as close quarters shootouts and hand-to-hand brawls, it works quite effectively, thanks to director Guy Ritchie’s deft editing and stylized images. A few sequences where Holmes thinks out his plans of attack in slow-motion and then are replayed at normal speed provide some nice instances of inspiration. But when Ritchie tries to be GRAND and EPIC, then the movie just becomes another big budget blockbuster. I know the point was to make Sherlock Holmes more of a man of action, but he is SHERLOCK HOLMES, and not Indiana Jones. An extended chase scene that goes on for about ten long minutes before finally ending with a ridiculous boat sinking is the most egregious example of this, in addition to a drawn out explosion scene that worked fine at first but then went too over-the-top by the end. Because of this emphasis on effects-heavy action, the storytelling suffers as we are left in the dark when it comes to a few aspects of the story until they are dumped on us all at once in a clunky manner (the final scene exemplifies this). When Ritchie lays off on the action notes though, he presents some of his finest and most controlled work to date. His envisions 19th century London as a grimy place, one filled with corruption, dirty alleyways, and primitive technology. The dark tone is welcome, compared to the usually sterile locales in other Holmes interpretations.
The pumped-up approach to Sherlock Holmes lore was perhaps needed to get audiences interested in another take on the iconic detective, but I’m afraid the filmmaker’s ambitions exceeded his grasp by too much. If anything, the person I feel most sorry for is Guy Ritchie, who hasn’t had a truly great movie since Snatch, before dropping to the cinematic wasteland with Swept Away. Sherlock Holmes is not a completely bad movie by any means; it’s a fun, reasonably well-made movie that just can’t overcome some of its more noticeable flaws.