Robert Downey Jr.'s 'Sherlock Holmes' isn't for the Doyle faithful
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 25, 2009
Calling all Baker Street Irregulars. Guy Ritchie does not care about you.
Maybe you've read the Sherlock Holmes canon cover to cover. Twice. Maybe you've seen every episode of the slavishly faithful Jeremy Brett TV series and consider the late actor's portrayal of the fictional detective the gold standard of Holmesian acting. Better even than Basil Rathbone.
Get over it.
Directed by Ritchie ("RocknRolla") from a script by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, and starring Robert Downey Jr., the newest contribution to the world of Arthur Conan Doyle spinoffs is less a product of genuinely Holmesian DNA than, say, "Se7en." (Yes, there's a serial killer.)
But the movie also looks more than a little bit like the last couple of "Harry Potter" films. There's black magic here, too, at least ostensibly. And the villainous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) -- who has been going around London dispensing with people in ritualistic, occult executions on his way to world domination -- is a distinctly Voldemort-like figure. Who has, I kid you not, apparently risen from the dead.
What else have we got? Would you believe a dash of James Bond, a pinch of Batman ("The Dark Knight" edition) and a sprinkling of kung fu? For Downey's Holmes is not just a master of disguise, deductive reasoning and scientific inquiry. Here, he's also a prize-winning pugilist whose brain gets only slightly more of a workout than his fists. True to form, Ritchie lavishes his camera's attention on as much loud, slo-mo bone-crunching action as he can.
And are those nunchucks Holmes is swinging in one scene?
The real question is not how much of this is true to the movie's literary antecedents. (Not much.) Rather, the question is how much of this actually works.
In the plus column is Downey's performance. The actor gets one important thing just right. That's a sense of Holmes as a brilliant misfit, a kind of autistic savant who hears, sees and remembers everything. One telling scene features Holmes in a noisy, crowded restaurant, where he's almost overcome by the sounds of clinking silverware and conversation. You can practically feel his senses at work.
Ritchie's handling of Dr. Watson is another matter. There's nothing terribly wrong with Jude Law's performance as Holmes's right-hand man, though he's considerably less stuffy than traditionally portrayed. Many will welcome that as a breath of fresh air, along with the increased prominence of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a character from a single Conan Doyle story whose expanded role here tones down the film's overpowering aroma of testosterone.
But the film also presents Watson's relationship with Holmes as vaguely homoerotic. One scene even features them bickering like an old married couple. And there are more than a few not-so-subtle double entendres and sidelong glances suggesting that the two are, you know, more than friends. This despite the fact that Watson has a fiancee (Kelly Reilly) and that Irene seems to have the hots for Holmes.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. The theory has even been advanced that Conan Doyle's stories support that interpretation. But it doesn't really serve Ritchie's film in the end. All the filmmaker's nudge-nudge, wink-winking comes across as gratuitous playground teasing.
At heart, that's the problem with "Sherlock Holmes." Not that it isn't, as fans of Ritchie's earlier, rock 'em-sock 'em work would probably say, awesome. In some ways, it is. The film includes a number of genuinely exciting, dramatically staged set pieces, such as the climactic showdown between Holmes and Blackwood on a half-finished bridge over the River Thames.
Rather, it's that this "Holmes" is just about as silly as it awesome. At times, Ritchie and company try so hard to make sure this isn't your father's "Sherlock Holmes" that it comes across as, well, cartoonish.
One other influence I forgot to mention? "Scooby-Doo." In the film's final moments, I wouldn't have been at all surprised to hear Lord Blackwood pull off a rubber mask and announce, "And I would have gotten away with it, too, if weren't for you meddling kids!"Contains violence, intense action sequences and brief suggestive imagery.