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Sherlock Holmes

dir: Guy Ritchie
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I should probably be ashamed of myself for having enjoyed this flick so much, but there it is. I’ve put it out there. I heartily enjoyed a Guy Ritchie movie, and, even worse, one based on the much beloved works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

When I heard Ritchie was making a version of Sherlock Holmes, and that it would be an action fest, I felt like I’d been punched in the nuts so hard that I was bleeding out of my mouth. Ritchie hasn’t made an enjoyable flick with a coherent plot or even vaguely coherent editing since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Since then there’s been this dire swirling of the same characters, the same over-stuffed plots based on Cockney slang, criminal doings and painful coincidence down a drain of creative bankruptcy, whereby the only decent moments for the viewer seem to occur almost by accident.

Well, someone must have forced Ritchie to calm the fuck down and produce something half-watchable, and I don’t think it was the vengeful ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle threatening to rip his nuts off. Even as tenuous and complicated as this story manages to be, with many a confusing scene that has to be explained in detail later on, it still manages to be far more coherent and easy to follow than anything else he’s ever had his name attached to.

Now, the world has recently rediscovered its extreme love of Robert Downey Jnr, and that’s a great thing. The man is wonderful, a delight, and often the only good thing in most of the flicks that he’s been in for the last thirty years. Iron Man raised him to iconic A-list status again, and in fact most of his roles in the 2000s seemed to be focussed on undoing the evil he’d perpetrated back in the 1990s, both in terms of cinema and his numerous criminal convictions.

I don’t know if he’s genuinely in any better a place that he was back when judge after judge kept sending him to jail and rehab, but at the very least, he’s getting decent roles and is at least getting better quality drugs so that he’s not wandering the streets all fucked up and breaking into stranger’s houses in order to pass out in their children’s beds.

You might not think on paper, or after watching the trailer, or in your own head that Downey Jr would be a good fit to play the classic Victorian-era detective. First of all, Downey is an American, after all, versatile as he might be. He also looks like no version of Sherlock I’ve ever heard of, and to describe his acting here as hammy and camp would be an insult to ham and to campers everywhere.

But since this version of Holmes is one in which Holmes is a bit of an Asperger’s autism spectrum disorder loon, and clearly a fan of substance abuse and booze, who even enjoys bare-knuckle boxing for some extra drug money, you realise that the part was expressly written for him, tailored like a fine-fitting but very shabby suit.

Holmes is only ever as good as his Watson, and in Jude Law, well, I’m not sure, really. All I know is that he plays Watson here with a limp. The dynamic between them is antagonistic, which isn’t really new, but the degree to which Watson both longs to be away from Holmes, his tics and his risk-seeking behaviour, but longs to be with him as well is a new wrinkle in the very long and very expansive tapestry that is the million or so versions of this story.

I mean, after all, there are the 50 or so Doyle stories, the ones written by others, the radio plays (I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve listened to Basil Rathbone playing Holmes on ancient radio serials from the 40s recently converted into podcasts many a time), or the over two hundred versions made for telly and cinema dating as far back as 1905. 1905! Can you wrap your head around such a date? That’s a hundred and five goddamn years ago! They invented the medium, and then five minutes later started pumping out Sherlock Holmes movies!.

This is in no way a radically different portrayal, but it’s purely meant as a fun, enjoyable pastiche of everything Holmes wedged into a Guy Ritchie blender, and aimed solely at being big budget mainstream entertainment. The plot is pure Doyle, and isn’t even as macabre or bizarre as some of the ones I’ve read, involving as it does the occult, murder, and many of Holmes’s most diabolical arch-enemies.

Though Professor Moriarty lurks in the shadows, the main villain is Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who has been cutting up poor ladies as if he’s jealous of the fame Jack the Ripper’s enjoys. Holmes and Watson catch him at the scene, and see to it that he is jailed, destined for the hangman’s noose.

Before his well-earned hanging, Blackwood pledges two things to Holmes: a) that the purpose of the murders was to grant him the power to defy death, and b) that the grave won’t stop him from making it to the local Pig & Whistle on Friday for their happy hour and free pork crackling next week.

Needless to say, in defiance of all of Holmes and Watson’s collective observational intelligence, Blackwood does indeed seem to come back from the dead like Lazarus on a good day. And now he has a decidedly Gestapo haircut and leather trenchcoat worthy of those most villainous of villains: The Masons.

Between the time when Blackwood is dead and perhaps Blackwood is alive, Holmes seems to be going mad, or madder, because of the lack of a case to work on. He wallows in his own filth, he clearly abuses laudanum, opiates, booze and whatever else comes to hand in between hypnotising flies and experimenting with his violin, and then deftly gets into brawls in which he figures out in a split second how best to best his opponent. We hear the thought process and see the slow motion rendering of what he’s about to do, and then we see the sped up version, as a very buff and muscular Holmes belts the ever-living fuck out of his opponents.

It’s fun to watch. Being the genius of deduction, prediction and extrapolation that he is, it’s even more amusing to hear him predict the length of time it will take for his opponent to recover from the wounds Holmes is about to give him, not only physically but mentally as well.

It’s brilliant. Of course, only a complete fuckwit can fuck up a Sherlock Holmes film, and, who knows, Ritchie probably tried. Maybe a cautious studio behind him telling him repeatedly to take the more retarded elements out of his proposed script resulted in a better flick than would otherwise have eventuated.

See, Holmes is only ever as good as he’s written. This is abused in practically every detective, medical or science fiction flick you can think of where a “brilliant” character can figure out the most complex of scenarios just from a few flecks of blood on a soiled doily, a scrap of paper and someone’s hairstyle on a given day. When they go overboard with the scenario it’s just dull, because it reminds you that the protagonist ‘figures’ out what’s going on, usually when it’s way too late, only because that’s what the writers tell the character to say. It takes you out of the story, and doesn’t ‘convince’ you that the character does what he or she does in the story because they’re just that good.

Is Downey and this script convincing? I’m not sure it really matters. Though no-one hesitates to call him brilliant, whether genuinely or derisively, there are at least two other characters in the flick with just as fine powers of perception as himself, Watson being one of them.

The other is Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), here reconfigured as being not only as genius as Holmes, and a decent brawler for some reason, but a professional thief as well. Is this the Irene Adler from the story A Scandal in Bohemia?, the person who Holmes referred to as one of the only people who ever bested him? She, totally spitting in the face of equal opportunity, regularly gets the best of him at every turn, and even if she’s miscast, it’s nice to see an (allegedly) attractive woman capable of turning a genius of Holmes’s capabilities into as much of a dickhead as the rest of us guys.

Considering that it’s set during the reign of blessed Queen Victoria, there’s a lot of CGI used to get London looking all spick and span and all proper-like. That I understand, and appreciate. What confuses me is that they use this strange light bloom special effect on the faces of the only two women in the flick, being McAdams and Kelly Reilly, who are young women. Why they would need to use this bloom effect on two young ladies, to mimic the effect they used to get by smearing Vaseline on the lens and draping panty hose over it as well to make their faces look all smudgy is incomprehensible. Reilly plays Mary, Watson’s fiancé, and his main reason/excuse to get away from Holmes. You know how the song goes, torn between two lovers and all that.

Let’s face it: Holmes and Watson are probably the gayest buddy duo in literary and cinematic history, with the most convenient cover story ever devised. If anything they’re the poster children for gay marriage. But, you know, considering how homophobic Ritchie is, he couldn’t exactly go that route here, so both men need, nay, must have ‘beards’.

Their relationship is the lynchpin of the film, and it works very well. Of course Downey has the showier role, but Jude Law does really well with the ambiguous / antagonistic aspects of the relationship. He desperately wants to be his own man, but his own intellect and curiousity keeps bringing him back to Holmes, much as he pretends to be finished with him. They have, at film’s opening, already worked together for many years, and carry on like an old married couple that doesn’t minimise his desire to sometimes murder Holmes out of exasperation.

Everyone except McAdams seems like they’re having a ball, from Downey acting like a cross between an over-excited puppy and his version of Chaplin from an age ago, to Law getting to do the action man thing like he never gets to do, to Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood oozing menace from his satanic pores. None of it can or should be taken seriously, and the occult stuff and steampunk aesthetic adds to the story instead of detracting or distracting from it. I couldn’t help but think that this is what
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen should have been like, instead of the abomination that it was.

It’s perhaps a little bit too action-y, what with an almost ridiculously long sequence where Holmes, Watson and Adler are surrounded by explosions, any number of which should have killed them all dead. And there’s an ongoing brawl with a French giant that goes from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again numerous times.

The plot doesn’t really matter, as in there are conspiracies and such afoot, with dark magic and even darker science in the offing. Let’s not forget that this Victorian age in flicks is routinely represented as the birth of the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, where the light of reason and science were pushing back the darkness of ignorance and fear. Of course it’s nothing like what actually happened in human history, but this is a Guy Ritchie flick, for crying out loud. So the pure cold reason of Holmes, and the medical and scientific expertise of Watson are pitted against the power of the supernatural in a battle where the future of the Empire is at stake, for ever more.

Who do you think will win, in the end? Who would you put your money on?

It’s a rollicking ride, as long as you don’t prize fidelity too highly. Even if Downey was completely over the top, even if this will make Doyle purists choke on their blood sausage and cause their monocles to fall from their eye sockets, shattering against the rim of their brandy glasses, I bloody well enjoyed it all the same.

7 times the sequel was pretty much set up before the film had finished its opening credits out of 10

“You have the grand gift of silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.” – Sherlock Holmes.