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Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Shit Sherlock

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes accomplishes several astonishing things:

1. It evokes Robert Downey Jr.’s least interesting performance since his re-emergence as an A-list actor.

2. It reduces literature’s greatest detective to a borderline-autistic, drunken brawler.

3. It manages to wholly miss the point and promise of a good mystery.

This is a truly awful movie. And considering the talent on and off the screen, that had to have been a greater feat than all the technical wizardry in Avatar. Like Avatar, I knew I was in trouble less than ten minutes into this picture; I was honestly compelled to leave. But no movie has beaten me yet.

This is a much different take on the Holmes character than previous incarnations. For one thing, he and his faithful assistant, Dr. Watson (Jude Law) are much younger—at least they act like it. They share a London apartment, which they have trouble maintaining due to Watson’s gambling problem and Holmes’ propensity for blowing holes in the walls. They’re like a Masterpiece Theatre version of the Jersey Shore housemates, who occasionally solve crimes. Indeed, I found that the film’s biggest mysteries didn’t involve the sinister, back-from-the-dead Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), or the motives of erstwhile femme fatale Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams); my curiosity lay in how Holmes and Watson could stand to be friends, much less work together. It was also never explained who or what Sherlock Holmes was supposed to be: rather than a sophisticated genius, Downey comes off as a very lucky hard case who grew up reading stories featuring his character.

When most people read a Sherlock Holmes mystery, they don’t settle in for an afternoon of explosions, incessant banter between the leads, and action set pieces; they want to enjoy an elaborate mystery, packed with atmosphere, plot twists, and suspects. Leave it to Guy Ritchie to throw out the story on day one and give us a chase scene through a shipyard featuring a shoddy runaway CG anchor.

The director and screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg correctly assume that one of the highlights of a good puzzle picture is the climax, where the brilliant protagonist unravels the threads and helps the audience to see what was in front of their faces all along (think The Usual Suspects); however, they miss the point of that exercise, which is that it happens once—at the end of the story. In Sherlock Holmes, there are at least five of these kinds of scenes, where Holmes breaks down everything, from boxing match strategy to whipping up a disguise; the problem is that these scenes are often slow-motion foretellings in his head that we must then watch in real-time half a minute later. This flashy, tedious contrivance is meant to confuse the audience with cuteness rather than cleverness—or, you know, story.

There are times, though, when a movie isn’t really about the story. There are rare movies where the main attraction is a powerhouse performance, like Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, or even Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man. The key is that the actor must do something unexpected with the part, something playful and engaging that either gets the audience on their side or turns them so solidly against him/her that they must stick around to revel in the character’s comeuppance. Sadly, the only surprise in Downey’s portrayal of Holmes is how phoned-in it is.

His English accent is flawless, but so what? He can do accents in his sleep; I was hoping he’d apply the same obsessive seriousness to Holmes that he did to his Paul Avery character in David Fincher’s Zodiac—perhaps with a slight comic bent; in both films he plays a smart, obsessed man on the trail of a killer. The difference is that here, he’s less man than Warner Brothers cartoon; he mumbles and slurs his lines unintelligibly for most of the movie (especially when he’s got that damned pipe shoved in his mouth); it’s as if he realizes this is a blockbuster, and not a job that requires an actual performance. There are two scenes in which we glimpse the Holmes that might have been (inspecting the ginger midget's apartment--before the madcap fight--and the climax with Lord Blackwood on the bridge), but they are sad reminders of everything else his character does during the other 105 minutes.

On a side note, who the hell thought Rachel McAdams was right for this movie? It’s bad enough that her “character” is a half-baked rip-off of Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd, but the writers inexplicably made her an American—I guess to add some dimension or something. The problem is that there’s something off-puttingly modern in her acting here, a not-quite-Valley-Girl cadence that suggests a grade-schooler playing a grown-up.

Of course, the Irene character is not the only nod to Casino Royale and other films. Sherlock Holmes’s climax involves a big chase through the bowels of Parliament that ends when Holmes pops up through a door—which opens onto a giant, under-construction bridge hundreds of feet above the Thames (yeah, I said, “huh?” too). There is much fighting and monologuing, and we’re meant to be awed at the danger and dizzied by the height; but I kept thinking about how much more satisfying the James Bond picture was (and how much smarter, too). I was also reminded of an earlier scene in which Holmes, Watson, and Irene must escape an elaborate series of traps—a passageway lined with timed bursts of flame and a conveyor belt where pigs are ripped apart by a buzz-saw; anyone who has seen Saw VI and Saw III will instantly recognize these traps, which were also handled better in their original incarnations.

The most disheartening thing about Sherlock Holmes is its cynical use of a supernatural story as the main plot. Anyone who has read a Holmes story—or seen an episode of Scooby-Doo—knows that the “ghosts” will eventually be revealed as mortal men with enough imagination and connections to pull off elaborate hoaxes. So when the time comes to reveal the secrets of the villain’s sleight of hand, we no longer care because there was never a doubt that the whole thing was a trick.

It would have been really interesting if there had been a supernatural foe for Holmes, or maybe just an enemy with a greater intellect than his own. In a “nod” to both Batman Begins and The Phantom Menace, we get a glimpse of the evil Moriarty, who is set up as the next picture’s antagonist. I hope to God he can slap some adulthood into this man-child version of Holmes. At last, a mystery worth pondering!

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