Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his associate/common-law wife Dr. Watson (Jude Law) are putting the finishing touches on the case of the fiendish Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who has delighted London with a series of black magic murders.

After Blackwood is caught, Holmes falls into his usual, bored funk, in this case deepened with his annoyance about one of the facts of life even a bastard genius has to live with - people are leaving. To be exact, Watson is about to get married to his fiancée Mary (Kelly Reilly) and is going to leave Holmes behind in their Baker Street abode.

A sudden appearance by Holmes' old flame/enemy Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) who has been hired by a shadowy character to convince Holmes to search for a certain Reordan (Oran Gurel) is proves to be an excellent distraction for our unheroic hero. But the life of a consulting detective can never be interesting enough, and so it is very much to our hero's delight when news reach him that the freshly hanged Lord Blackwood seems to have risen from the grave. That seems like an excellent excuse to keep Watson away from the married life! And might Irene Adler's missing person have something to do with the Blackwood affair?

After having suffered through more than one bad British Tarantino rip-off directed by him, I didn't think Guy Ritchie had anything good (beyond distracting Madonna from making records; something he also isn't very good at) in him. I'm happy to say I was wrong.

Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes imagines the character as a two-fisted pulp hero who has more in common with Doc Savage or (to take a British example) the mid-period Sexton Blake than with the way most other interpretations of the consulting detective show him. This might distress or annoy a certain part of Holmes fandom that can't abide versions of Holmes which put their weight less on the armchair detective side of the character and more on Holmes as a man of action. Others, like me, will probably be glad about a Holmes film taking liberties with a character that has become part of our cultural background, and turned into a piece of modern mythology that is based on much more than Arthur Conan Doyle's writings. Like all mythology, Holmes gains his strength through re-interpretations and re-imaginings. I really wouldn't see much point in a film about the detective that's trying to copy the Brett or the Livanov version. After all, these interpretations of the character already exist on screen; re-hashing them without Brett and Livanov would be an exercise in futility.

Watched as the pulpy adventure movie it is supposed to be, Ritchie's film succeeds quite brilliantly. Ritchie shows a firm hand at throwing Holmes and Watson into silly-awesome set pieces, racing them through them and just stopping for enough breathers to nod in the direction of various other Holmeses and Watsons, and to put a bit more emphasis on the complicated emotional relations between Holmes, Watson, Mary and Irene. This would probably not be all that exciting if the set pieces didn't work, but work they do, with all the breathlessness that a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster and classic pulp storytelling share. There's a sense of utter glee hanging over the film, as if Ritchie had finally been let loose to play with his perfect toy box. This enthusiasm and sense of fun is what divides Sherlock Holmes from other pieces of mainstream cinema as produced by people like Michael Bay; where Bay and his ilk are filling their films with the things their focus groups demand, Ritchie seems to put the things on screen he himself finds fun. As should be obvious, I'm all for a well-placed bit of fun.

Just as obviously, I can't stop talking about this Sherlock Holmes and its sense of fun and glee without mentioning Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as the title character. After this and his work on Iron Man, I'm convinced that Downey is the perfect actor for the well-paced screen spectacle, perfectly fit for physical acting and possibly the most note-perfect over-actor since Vincent Price (whom I'd loved to have seen as Holmes). As you know, Jim, a good over-actor does not merely chew the scenery, but knows exactly how much of this treatment a film needs and - more importantly - can take, and does not bite off more of a given film's face than necessary. Downey is really glorious as Holmes, and he is expertly supported by Jude Law's straight man with a fist and a sense of irony.

My only problems with the movie are Hans Zimmer's score, which sounds a bit too much like something written by a man who very desperately wants to be Ennio Morricone, but just isn't, and Rachel McAdam's inability to project the charisma the script demands of its Irene Adler. Both problems are notable, yet never grow large enough to endanger the film's exhilarating effect.

Sometimes, Hollywood blockbusters do deliver what they promise.



Todd said...

I liked this one a lot, too. And I like you're comparison of Downey Jr. to Vincent Price. Not something that would have occurred to me, but makes a lot of sense when you mention it.

So now you're going to review The Asylum's version, right?

houseinrlyeh said...

I was a bit surprised by the Price idea myself, but the more I thought about it, the more fitting it became.

The problem with reviewing The Asylum's version is that I'd have to watch it.

Todd said...

Well, if if helps at all, I survived it. But that's all I'm gonna say.

houseinrlyeh said...

Considering what other films you have survived, I'm not too sure that it does help.

Todd said...

Right. My assuring you that it was better than Super Batman doesn't give you much to work with.

houseinrlyeh said...

Although it does alleviate my fears that it contains scenes of cruel and unusual child choir singing.