When you eliminate all possibilities, whatever’s left, however improbable, must be… surf’s up!
When I heard that a new take on Sherlock Holmes was under way courtesy of director Guy Ritchie, known mostly for pop-culture gangster flicks, I was skeptical. Then the first photos from the set showed up online, featuring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) as Holmes wearing a black trench coat and round John Lennon sunglasses, and Jude Law (Closer) as a buffed-up Watson, striking his best ruggedly handsome action hero pose. I got even more skeptical. Finally, the theatrical trailer tried its best to convince me that this was Jerry Bruckheimer’s Pirates of the Sherlock, and I was ready to sit back and pretend this movie never existed. I asked myself, “If you’re creating a movie about one of the all-time great fictional characters, shouldn’t it be about that character, and not about gunfights and explosions?”
I ended up seeing it anyway, due to positive word of mouth at the time of release, combined with my still-lingering love of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which I read, back in high school, instead of doing my homework. Imagine my surprise when, although different from Holmes stories of the past, the movie was everything I’d wanted from Holmes as a character. The gunfights and explosions are merely a happy bonus.
It’s the later years of the famous detective’s career. After solving many complex and outrageous cases, Holmes is bored, with no mysteries or puzzles to fill his always-active mind. His longtime sidekick/friend/biographer Dr. Watson is moving out of 221B Baker St. to get married. The pair just wrapped up their final case, exposing a series of murders committed by the sinister Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong).
Blackwood is executed for his crimes, and it looks like Holmes and Watson’s adventures are at an end. Then, despite all logical explanation, it appears Blackwood has risen from the grave and is killing again. Although Watson wants out, circumstances keep him involved with the mystery, working with Holmes once more. Meanwhile, sexy female thief Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, Red Eye) reenters Holmes’ life, with a quandary that might be related to the Blackwood case.
From there, it’s fistfights in shipyards, secret societies, hidden chemical labs, chases, gunfights, bombs, and more. Just another day in the life of Sherlock Holmes.
This version of Holmes downplays the “proper English gentleman” aspect of the character to the point of almost nonexistence, and ups his many eccentricities to forefront. His mind is always hungry, always in need of a mystery or puzzle to solve. Without this mystery, the spark goes from his eyes, and he becomes disheveled and easily distracted. He hides away in his rooms, conducting goofball experiments and basically going stir crazy. It’s a little strange at first to see the great Sherlock Holmes crawling around on the floor in 221B Baker St., mumbling to himself while looking all unwashed and out of it. Then, when the case kicks into high gear, we get the more traditional Holmes, making astute observations, rifling through crime scenes, and taking that stuffy Inspector Lestrade down a few pegs.
The script’s emphasis isn’t so much on the case as it is on the friendship between Holmes and Watson. As most folks know by now, the Watson of the original text was not the bumbling buffoon often seen in film versions. Just because he doesn’t have Holmes’ brilliance, that doesn’t make Watson an idiot. He is, obviously, a doctor, and having been a soldier, something of a tough guy. Instead of being the dimwitted sidekick, Watson is more of an “everyman,” reacting to Holmes’ screwy world just as any of us might. Once Watson’s fiancée enters the picture, the friendship between the doctor and the detective becomes strained. As much as Holmes is enamored with his own genius, he’s come to depend on Watson’s support and camaraderie. Because he’s Holmes, though, he can’t just open up and admit that, so he undermines Watson’s relationship in mess-with-your-head ways. Watson, not being stupid in this version, can see what Holmes is up to and isn’t putting up with it. Still, Watson can’t just turn his back on Holmes, as much as he desires to, for two reasons. One, because there’s a case to be solved with lives on the line, and two, because he’s come to depend on Holmes’s support and camaraderie as well.
With all these interpersonal dynamics going on, it’s hard to believe there’s a mystery to be solved, but there is. It has to do with a man seemingly back from the dead, murders caused by supernatural powers, and the fate of all England at stake. As the heavy, Mark Strong has a cool voice and does a great intense stare, but beyond that there’s not much to say about his character. McAdams, meanwhile, shows a lot of feistiness as Irene Adler, but, as much as she’s an excellent actress, she just seemed too contemporary, and isn’t quite at the same level as the two guys. Much better is Kelly Reilly (Mrs. Henderson Presents) as Watson’s fiancée, Mary. Although she’s only in a handful of scenes, she really shines.
Some Holmesian purists might balk at the idea of fighting, gunplay, and explosions in a Sherlock Holmes story, but those originals weren’t all quaint drawing room mysteries. When you’ve got murderers and secret societies running loose in Victorian England, you’re going to want to really run with that, and that’s just what the filmmakers have done. The centerpiece of the film is a fight and chase that cumulates with mass destruction at a shipyard, and it’s action that’s just as fun as it is tense. Not to mention that’s it’s nicely staged and edited, so that the audience never loses track of what’s happening. Other scenes of note take us into Holmes’s thought process. In the seconds before a fight, we get these slow motion clips narrated by Holmes, explaining to us exactly how he intends to defeat his enemy. Then, in real time, he does just that. This is the edgy, quick-cutty thing that Guy Ritchie is known for, but, fortunately, it doesn’t take us out of the movie. I have to wonder, though, why they didn’t revisit this when Holmes confronted the villain at the end. That would have seen the motif through to its conclusion, bookending the movie, etc.
It deserves to be said: The movie takes some liberties with the canon. For example:
• Despite his fondness for her wit, Holmes and Irene Adler never had a romantic relationship (although some fans like to debate this one).
• Even if his rooms were a cluttered mess, Holmes was always described as impeccably dressed and well coiffed, and not the physical train wreck he is at times in this movie.
• Since when did Holmes and Watson have a dog?
The picture quality on the disc is good, with no detail lost in dark or smoky scenes. The real standout, technically, is the DVD’s audio, which makes use of all the surrounds for a rich, immersive experience. It also fills the room with the deliciously quirky score by Hans Zimmer. The only extra is “Sherlock Holmes Reinvented,” a brief featurette that runs through the checklist of the filmmakers’ approach the character, the casting, and the elaborate production. It’s good, but too brief for my tastes.
Despite the blockbuster thrills, I can’t bring myself to describe Sherlock Holmes as an “action movie.” Instead, it’s an “adventure movie,” the kind I thought no one made any more. It’s a rollicking fun time across the rain-drenched streets and back alleys of old London, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.