Friday, December 25, 2009

Sherlock Holmes as action hero

Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Stone, Eddie Marsan, William Houston and Kelly Reilly
Director: Guy Ritchie
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Downey) and his sometimes-reluctant colleague Dr. Watson (Law) most solve the mystery of a Satanist (Stone) who has seemingly returned from the dead to continue a killing spree. Meanwhile, Holmes old adversary and lover Irene Adler (McAdams) has reappeared on the scene with a mysterious agenda of her own.

The most famous of all consulting detectives gets the big budget, CGI-generated "stunts" action movie treatment in a film with actors who give far better performances than this flabby movie probably deserved.

Some reviewers have been upset by the "action movie" feel this film has, even commenting that Holmes shouldn't be an action hero. I don't quite agree with that sentiment, as Holmes always seemed like a man of action and quite willing to resort to violence when necessary. What annoys me is the pointlessness of much of the action and some of the stupidity of it.

I don't know whether it's the gigantic budget he had to work with here, or whether he's devolved as a director over the past ten years, but Guy Ritchie seemed to have a far better sense for how to make an exciting movie when he did "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" in the late 1990s.

The flow of the movie, and therefore the attention to the viewer, is repeatedly disrupted by pointless side treks and plot detours, such as a long sequence with Holmes in a boxing match (a very stupid thing for a genius like Holmes to engage in, even if he is a thrill-seeker), or one where he is tricked by Irene Adler and ends up handcuffed and naked in bed (an scene mostly there for a single feeble gag). These irrelevancies might not be so bad if they added some definition to the characters, but the traits shown in these scenes are already introduced and reinforced in other far more relevant and important scenes, making the filler material like the above-mentioned sequences that much more annoying and boring. The end result is that the film has a flabby, drawn-out feeling to it.

Then there's the asinine slow-motion and absolutely annoying jerky/blurry camera work during the action scenes. It's not artistic, it doesn't enhance the suspense... it's just irritating and stupid.

The script is also not all it could have been. I've already mentioned pointless scenes, but a far bigger problem is the case that Holmes is working on. It's so much that he is squaring off against what seems to be a supernatural menace (even if that is more in keeping with Doyle's non-Holmes tales than this one) it's that the bad guys are of the "trying to take over the world" variety. What's next for Holmes at this point? Battling Professor Moriarty after he teams up with Ming the Merciless to conquer the Universe? A smaller, perhaps even more petty, motivation for the villains would have been far more suitable.

It's too bad this film wasn't helmed by a more competent director and based on a more solid script, because the approach taken by both the script and the actors to the characters of Holmes and Watson feels very much in keeping with the stories from which they originally sprang. While the nature of the adventure is pretty far removed from anything Doyle included in the Holmes stories, but Downey and Law portray a Holmes and a Watson that I think Doyle probably would have appreciated. They are far better than the celebrated team of Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce, slightly better than Jeremy Brett & Edward Hardwicke, and standing nearly equal with my favorite on-screen Holmes & Watson team of Peter Cushing & Andre Morrell.

All in all, file this Holmes version with the Hammer "The Hound of the Baskervilles" starring Cushing and Morrell. It gets the characters right, it's very entertaining, but the storyline is a bit far from Conan Doyle. Not as far as some of the Basil Rathbone films, but pretty far nonetheless.