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Sherlock Holmes (A Movie Review)


Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Kelly Reilly, Eddie Marsan, James Fox, Hans Matheson, William Hope and Geraldine James.

Written by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham.

Directed by Guy Ritchie.

Distributed by Warner Bros. 130 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would undoubtedly be perplexed by how Guy Ritchie has interpreted his most famous creation. After all, even in the old mystery stories, Sherlock Holmes had any number of problems, including a certain obsessive compulsiveness and a possible drug habit, but he never seemed quite as messed up as this. This Sherlock Holmes drinks, takes drugs, is involved in bare-knuckle street fighting and mixed martial arts, fencing, the black arts and lots and lots of stunt work. He also seems just vaguely gay – despite a love interest played by Rachel McAdams – and argues with Dr. Watson like they were an old married couple.

Okay, sure, I suppose that it is fair game for an artist to completely rethink a literary character – even an iconic one like Sherlock Holmes. However, much like Robert Zemeckis’ recent reinvention of A Christmas Carol, the characters and storylines here are massaged so much to appeal to a modern audience that they somewhat lose track of the reason that these characters became icons in the first place.

Yes, Sherlock Holmes still is an intellectual with an amazing power of observation and deductive reasoning – however this Holmes uses his brawn as much or more than his brain.

Of course, part of this problem is that the mystery here – despite its hints of black magic and the supernatural – is actually rather uninteresting. Add that to the fact that the movie almost never really shows Holmes and Watson in the process of discovering and processing the clues. Holmes throws out lots of little observations with no explanation or foreshadowing, but somehow here it takes on the vibe of a parlor trick.

Part of the problem is the casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes. Downey is a wonderful actor and does a terrific job in creating a character here – but he doesn’t feel at all like Holmes. If he were playing some other generic Victorian-era detective it would be a stunning job, but the characterization just feels wrong to the character as we have known him for so many decades.

Jude Law’s fussy, exasperated Dr. Watson also feels like too much of a stretch, particularly in the somewhat regular vaguely homoerotic arguments he has with Holmes. Rachel McAdams’ gorgeous but larcenous former lover is also completely an anachronistic touch in the film.

Also, to be completely honest, Guy Ritchie’s grungy, hyperactive directing style is a terrible fit for this character and this milieu. Holmes is supposed to be more distinguished and live in a more upscale lifestyle. It’s like Ritchie is trying to turn the movie into Deerstalker and Two Smoking Barrels.

I mean I get why Ritchie did it. Sherlock Holmes is a character from a slower, more measured time. Modern audiences would probably find a Holmes movie played straight to be a little dull and slow-moving. However, there had to be a way to make a film that was faithful to the strengths of the character and at the same time would be interesting for a modern audience. If there isn’t, what’s the point in making a Sherlock Holmes movie at all?

Holmes doesn’t need all the bells and whistles – the fistfights, the firefights, the bombings, the runaway boats, the fights on the top of the bridge, the strange poisoning contraptions. In fact, those modern touches chafe on the character and make one of the most beloved characters in mystery fiction seem like a generic action hero.

As a film, Sherlock Holmes is an okay modern adventure story. However, it really has little to do with the famous detective it is supposedly based upon.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: December 25, 2009.


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