The game's afoot. Mostly.
When the new Sherlock Holmes film first appeared, I heard a number of complaints, some from random movie-goers and some from film critics, that Guy Ritchie hadn’t given them “the real Sherlock Holmes”.
Ritchie deserves a break here. I think its possible that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are so infrequently read that film has been able to use the character fairly elastically. I would guess that the average moviegoer only knows that Holmes wears a deerstalker hat (known to much of the world as a “Sherlock Holmes hat”), smokes a pipe and solves crimes using a razor-keen rationality.
There’s no deerstalker in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes and Robert Downey Jr. does not sit in an overstuffed armchair, puffing away on his pipe, solving crimes. Bloodied knuckles and chases through a weirdly lit Victorian London are his preferred crime-fighting method, though he brings his famed cerebral dexterity to each of these activities. This disappointed some moviegoers, as did the personal quirkiness bordering on autism that Downey brought to the role.
In fact, Ritchie borrowed very heavily from the Holmes canon to create his version of the Baker Street sleuth, including the bare-knuckle fight scene that has garnered so much attention. Holmes’ personal quirks are not only very much a part of the written canon but appear frequently in film and television portrayals. Jeremy Brett, the actor who portrayed Holmes for the UK TV serial The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in the ‘80s, famously invested the character with his own manic-depressive tendencies.
And the deerstalker hat? It actually first appeared in an early film version of the famous detective.
Guy Ritchie has not so much given us some sort of “updated Sherlock” as brought out some of the most interesting aspects of the character’s century-long development. Although in many respects a flawed film, Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson perfectly realize their characters in a fashion that stays with you long after your first viewing.
Downy and Law play off one another perfectly, making this anything but Victorian era buddy movie. The rather explicit homoerotic undertones of their interactions are only a small, if notable, part of their complicated friendship. A dash of Butch and Sundance plus a bit of Lethal Weapon makes them one of the best male couples I’ve ever seen on film.
Sherlock Homes further benefits from an excellent cinematography and set design that creates an 1890s London cityscape that owes something to history and something to steampunk. Dingy markets and stylishly grungy streets make for a perfect Holmsian environment. The Blu-Ray edition of this film allows you to revel in Victorian London that at times feels neo-realistic. The occasional steampunk gadget adds texture to, rather than betrays, this truly inspired vision.
Unfortunately, the dynamic duo of Downey and Law set against the great look of this film clashes dramatically with some very serious shortcomings. The introduction of Rachel McAdams as “Irene Adler, a femme fatale that serves as Holmes’s love interest,” feels like an effort to tamp down the homoerotic undertones of the Holmes-Watson relationship. Shoehorned into a story where she doesn’t belong, her scenes add absolutely nothing to the narrative and, at times, cause the pacing to grind to a halt. Ironically McAdams (best known to audiences from Ryan Goslings The Notebook) turned down the role of Vesper Lynd in the Martin Campbell Bond films because she wanted to be involved in projects other than big budget action movies.
Bond films actually haunt the telling of this story in a number of ways, and Ritchie has suggested that he wanted his Holmes to be a kind of Victorian James Bond. This comes out in the plotting where we are given villain “Lord Blackwood” (Mark Strong who appears in Revolver) that aspires to super-criminal status along the lines of Dr. No.
Strong does the best he can with a rather boring character and the increasingly bizarre plotting of Sherlock Holmes. Viewers with a bit of awareness of the Holmes canon will be left wondering why the first film in this series didn’t pit Holmes against is arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, who is introduced at the very end of the film in a ham-fisted sequel set-up.
Efforts to turn Holmes into a fin-de siècle Bond falter further in the messy narrative. A good James Bond film also has a complex and, at times, byzantine plot. We enjoy the hell out the car chases while not always being certain why they are happening. By the time the credits role, we see symmetry in the plot points of international criminals, conspiracies and betrayals.
No such luck with Ritchie’s Holmes. The action remains rather random. At the end, as Ritchie serves us up some warmed over Dan Brown with a conspiracy involving the masons, satanic worship among the British nobility and a plot to rule the world by killing British parliamentarians. Or something.
The last hour of Sherlock Holmes makes you wish that Ritchie had not turned to the Bond film for inspiration but rather to his own early work. Before he made tedious action films with absurd kabalistic subtexts (Revolver) and disastrous turkeys starring his ex-wife Madonna (Swept Away) Ritchie made some of the best crime films in genre history. Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels are two of the finest representations of gritty criminal underworlds ever filmed, perfectly balancing violence and humor with a careful study of male friendship.
Sherlock Holmes could have included all of these elements and did include some of them. Recreating the criminal underworld of the late 19th century as he did for late 20th century London, Ritchie could have reintroduced us to this famous, but misunderstood character while also reacquainting us with his own slumbering genius. He missed both opportunities here.
Pitch perfect performances by Downey and Law along with the great look of this film make it well worth your time, despite its serious failings. The Blu-Ray edition comes packed with goodies that not only allow you to explore the making of this effort, but how the Holmes mythos conforms and contrasts to what Ritchie finally put on screen.
In addition to excellent documentary material that goes beyond simple “making of’ featurettes in the extras, we also get the Maximum Movie Mode that Warner now frequently includes with its major Blu-Ray releases. This allows us to watch the film with onscreen inserts that show storyboards and provide commentary from cast and crew. This update of the director’s commentary gives the sense of watching the film with the director as he details why he made the decision he did.
The latter feature clarifies the likely set of responses to this film. At points, you want to applaud as you listen to Ritchie describe how he filmed action sequences, something he does better than just about anybody in the business. When it comes to casting and narrative style, however, you just want to turn to him and ask what the hell he was thinking. The best Guy Ritchie film in years should have been better than this.