Friday, 1 January 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

When I saw the trailer for this film I laughed and laughed. The editing, the explosions, the slow motion martial arts; it was pretty much a perfect parody of a Hollywood adaptation. Add that to the phrase "Directed by Guy Ritchie", and the whole enterprise seems tailor-made to make Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle fans go apoplectic. I didn't really want to see it all that bad but a few months later I somehow found myself in a movie theater watching it. Pretty strange. I think aliens might have been involved.

A lot of the appeal of this film comes down to the casting of Robert Downey Jr, who is so good at playing smug assholes he should receive an Academy Award for Excellence in the Field of Smug Assholery. He's a natural fit for Holmes, who is far more of a rude asshole in Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's books than most interpretations are willing to admit. Jude Law plays straight-man Dr. Watson, who does his best to stop Holmes from spiralling into a pit of self-destruction. It never really occured to me how much of a natural fit Sherlock Holmes was for a buddy-cop action movie. It's pretty much Lethal Weapon with less noodly white-guy saxophone music. In fact a great deal of the movie revolves around Watson's impending engagement, a clear case of "getting too old for this shit".

The two of them are helped/hindered by professional thief Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who plays the Catwoman to Holmes's Batman. She's American, since US audiences tend to get bit antsy if there isn't someone on-screen with a similar accent to theirs. There is some pretty good chemistry between the three of them, although the banter probably isn't as polished as I would like. Surprisingly they don't use this setup for any sitcom-style gay panic jokes between Holmes and Watson, although no doubt they are saving that comedy gold for the inevitable sequel.

The plot revolves around Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a devil-worshipping sorceror who is executed for the sacrificial murder of five young women. The next day he appears to have risen from the grave, so it's up to Holmes and Watson to determine whether he truly has black magic powers or is simply good with a chemistry set (guess which). Everything moves so quickly that there's hardly any time for mulling over the facts, with Holmes deductive reasoning limited to the discovery of a tiny clue that points them to the next punch-up or fiery explosion. Eventually they uncover Blackwoods plan to take of Britain and re-colonise America (again, American audiences) with the help of a steampunk Rube Goldberg machine.

I never would have guessed that Guy Ritchie might have a talent for directing this kind of bloated Hollywood blockbuster, but he does pretty well at reigning in his usual stylistic flourishes and treading the fine line of blockbuster-stupidity without stumbling into Michael Bay territory. For instance, there's only one farting dog joke. The script only ocassionally succumbs to obvious thriller cliches such as the pattern of killings on the map pointing to the location of the next crime or the exotic drug that induces a death-like coma. One of the cleverest, most action-friendly ways they integrated Holmes's skills was when the film would go into slow motion as he deduces the series of blows that would most efficiently incapacitate his opponent, complete with damage assessment and estimated recovery time. Basil Rathbone never did that shit.

Most of the fights are shot in the modern blockbuster style, which means I've got my usual complaints about the action being over-edited and choppy, but I suppose I should resign myself to the fact that being able to tell what the fuck is going on in an action scene is for old people and squares. There are a few big CG setpieces including a fight at a shipyard and atop an unfinished suspension bridge, and they also manage to work in a surprising amount of pyrotechnics. One scene is filled with magical Hollywood explosions that only cause minor contusions even when they go off point blank in your face.

A lot of people are going to hate this film and that's fair enough. It's true to the characters of the novels in many ways, but it's still a dumb, loud blockbuster. It could have been a lot worse, though. See the National Treasure series for a few examples of this kind of movie done badly. As far as Hollywood gangrape of classic literature goes, it's pretty good.

1 comment:

MichelleTheNerd said...

Well I love a gangrape of a classic as much as anyone. I'm actually looking forward to seeing this movie- but now I'll get to assess your comments too- Oh the fun!