Sunday, December 27, 2009

Review: "Sherlock Holmes" (2009)


Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” is that rare piece of forgettable mediocrity not content with leaving the audience to guess how it could've been a better film. Instead, the movie chooses to one-up us by showing how it could be better in the first half.

As played by Robert Downey, Jr., the Holmes in this film is an uncouth and scruffier detective than the ones we’ve seen in previous adaptations. Some might complain he no longer wears that ridiculous deerstalker hat or the fact that he never says, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” That said, opening scenes are quite steeped in what really made Sherlock Holmes such a fascinating character – his uncanny sense of deductive reasoning.

Hot on the trail of a murderous cult leader named Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), he spots some hired muscle guarding a corridor. Then in an inventive sequence, we hear Holmes’ inner monologue as he sizes up the goon’s various weaknesses based on the way he walks. Meanwhile, Ritchie’s ever-anxious camera gives a slowmo, telegraphed demonstration of how the fight will actually go down, followed by a sped-up version wherein Sherlock bests his foe with almost phantom speed and accuracy. A similar moment takes place later on during a hilarious boxing match, but then this approach is abandoned for the rest of the film. This is a real shame, as it was a lot more fun to watch than the mindless fisticuffs that punctuate the latter two-thirds like exclamation marks in used car lot ads.

We get another great moment after Lord Blackwood is apprehended wherein Dr. Watson – played by Jude Law who walks away with the entire show – coaxes Holmes to leave his cluttered office for a change and meet him at a restaurant. Holmes obliges, arriving at the restaurant early only to lose his mind paying attention to the tiny physical details and tics he could use to identify every single person in the room. Again, this moment was a solid inclusion for a movie attempting to reinvent Sherlock Holmes for the Mountain Dew generation. If the good detective must become a scruffy action hero, at least let him be a thinking man’s scruffy action hero.

But then the movie ditches the point of view that powered the first act in favor of slap-happy double and triple crosses that make little sense in terms of both the characters and story, and worst of all, the film loses sight of Holmes. Oh, we still see him all right, but we’re no longer inside his head as he investigates a mystery that points to Blackwood returning from the grave after being executed for his crimes and attempting to put his pagan cult in control over London. And when it comes to movie villains, Blackwood is more of the dumb James Bond variety. He might be brilliant enough to invent the first remote control biological weapon, but he bungles important details like loading his bombs with enough explosives to kill his enemies when they detonate them.

According to the opening credits, “Sherlock Holmes” was scripted by three screenwriters – Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg – and while this is not unusual for a studio blockbuster, my hope is that the producers will realize which ones were responsible for the movie’s best parts (i.e. the beginning) and rehire them alone to pen the inevitable sequel.

The only praise I could give the trio of writers collectively for their Frankenscript is that they had the smarts not to make Sherlock’s foes capable of actual magic. I spent much of the film dreading that this is what they were going to do. And while you can deprive the detective his hat and oft-quoted line, if you remove the logic as well, you might as well call it something else.

(** & 1/2 out of 4)


Blogger Ian McDowell said...

He never wears the deerstalker hat in the original stories, and it would indeed have been a ridiculous piece of headgear while in the city. He never says "Elementary, my dear Watson." And while he smokes a pipe, it isn't the familiar curved Meerschaum, which was adopted by the actor Sidney Gillette for the stage, as it was the style of pipe that made it easiest to speak his lines while smoking.

In Billy Wilder's lovely THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, Holmes berates Watson for the "ridiculous costume" he expected to wear in public because of the stories. To which Watson replies, essentially, that's not me, that the illustrator!

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