‘Sherlock Holmes’: Alimentary waste

December 22, 2009

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Guy Ritchie’s post-modern take on “Sherlock Holmes,” but here’s the main one:


Unlike most heroes of American detective literature (Nero Wolfe being the rare exception), Arthur Conan Doyle’s storied detective is not and never has been an action hero. Not that he’s averse to a bit of rough-and-tumble in the name of self-defense – but Conan Doyle’s stories are singularly devoted to his creation’s remarkable deductive skills, not his ability to outfight giants or outrun fireballs.


If Ritchie, an intriguing film stylist, and producer Joel Silver (whose ham-handed fingerprints are all over this film) wanted to make a James Bond film set in Victorian times, why call him Sherlock Holmes? Why not Terlock Scones? Merlock Bones? Parkway Homes?


Elementary, dear reader: Because this is a shameless bid at transforming Holmes and partner Dr. Watson (played by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law) into a franchise, a tentpole – and all of that other Hollywood jargon that means: “a character who can be relied upon to make more than $100 million per film at the box office for years to come.” After all, Harry Potter films won’t last forever. But Holmes could be the gift that keeps on giving.


Instead, this “Sherlock Holmes” belongs on a shelf next to the Will Smith “Wild Wild West”: a remake that seems more excreted than created. Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” is too long, too generic (surprising, given Ritchie’s always inventive visual and story-telling style) and not nearly as clever as it seems to think. It’s yet another can-he-save-us-from-Doomsday plot, the kind James Bond was cutting his teeth on in movies 40-plus years ago.


At first, Richie seems to have found a way into Holmes’ thought process that translates visually and promises twists and turns to come. In the very first scene, while trying to infiltrate an occult-like tomb where human sacrifice is in the works (shades of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), Holmes spots a villainous goon he knows he has to remove as an obstacle. So, in his mind, he runs through all the physical steps he will have to take – his actions and the equal-and-opposite reactions that will lay his opponent flat.


Ritchie renders each step in bone-crunching, flesh-kneading slo-mo, then has Holmes carry them out in real time. It’s a neat trick and one that promises intriguing variations as Holmes spots and interprets clues en route to solving (or stopping) the crime. It also portends a moment when Holmes’ future-vision fails him – when his plan goes wrong and he’s forced to think on his feet. But that never happens. That particular visual gimmick pops up twice, then never again.


Instead, Ritchie falls back on another device: the flashback of something we’ve already witnessed, seen from an angle that reveals new information, to explain Holmes’ various deductive leaps. In this context, it feels tired and unimaginative.


Or maybe it’s the case itself that seems so arbitrary and half-formed, as though Ritchie (and Silver – don’t forget Silver) cobbled the story together after first coming up with a list of cool action sequences: “Ooo, how about a fight under a ship in drydock, where the braces get kicked out so that Holmes is in danger of being crushed by the boat? How about a battle on top of the girders that will be London Bridge? And some explosions – big, fiery ones! And a guy spontaneously bursting into flames! Can we build a story around those?”


What story there is begins with Holmes capturing an evil British lord (Mark Strong), who seems to be an occultist with the devilish ability to place people under spells. Then Holmes is hired by former lover/nemesis Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams in a nothing role) to find a missing friend. But after Lord Blackwood is executed by hanging and then seems to return from the grave, Holmes finds himself chasing something much bigger.


Or so he thinks. In fact, the screenwriters (all three of them) jumble together all sorts of adventure-movie tropes – supernatural connections, foreign agents, corruption from within – to pad what should be a taut tale of impending doom. Most of it loops back to create the semblance of a case that can actually be explained by Holmes at the end. But there’s so much excess that it’s like trying to stuff five pounds of suet into a one-pound bag.


Meanwhile, Holmes has been transformed into a buff martial-arts expert with washboard abs. Ummm, OK, but what’s he doing participating in underground bare-knuckle bouts? Why is Watson addicted to gambling? Good questions all – which undoubtedly will be dealt with (or not) in the not-unexpected sequels.


Downey is as quirky and unconventional an actor as has ever played Conan Doyle’s detective – but he barely sounds British and seems to have dropped in from another movie. Law seems too callow by half to be the war-veteran physician. While the author’s Watson was never the dunderhead that Nigel Bruce portrayed in the Basil Rathbone films, Law’s Watson seems too modern for Victorian England – but then, so does Downey.


What’s the point of continuing? To coin a phrase, this movie is too big to fail, given the massive promotion campaign and commercial buy on TV. Millions of preteen boys who would never dream of reading an actual Sherlock Holmes book no doubt are lining up already to buy tickets.


And the dumbing down of the world in general continues.


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