Elementary, my dear Ritchie ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Monday, December 28, 2009

Elementary, my dear Ritchie

Sherlock Holmes
My rating:

A couple weeks ago, I found two volumes of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes at a Popular bookstore outlet - the complete novels, and the complete short stories. In hardcover, for only 30 ringgit each. Sweeeeet. I picked them both up immediately, of course, glad that I could finally fill that gap in my childhood literary memories. Y'see, I grew up with my dad's copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the second anthology of stories, so I reckon I have more than a passing familiarity with the literary Holmes. I also remember watching the British TV series starring Jeremy Brett, who is still many fans' definitive Holmes on screen.

So all this makes my opinion of this movie - that it's pretty good - a thoroughly informed and expert one. Recognize, yo.

After foiling a ritual human sacrifice and apprehending Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) finds himself bored and depressed - more so because Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is getting married and moving out of their famous apartment on 221B Baker Street. Then longtime adversary Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) reappears to offer him a case (and reignite some long-simmering romantic tension), and furthermore Blackwood appears to have survived his hanging and literally risen from the grave with the help of supernatural powers. Both cases are of course related, and Holmes - aided by a now-none-too-enthusiastic Watson - must uncover Blackwood's megalomaniacal plans and foil them.

Yes, I enjoyed it, but the question on everyone's minds is: is it a faithful adaptation? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that there's a lot to Doyle's Holmes that most people don't know, mostly because they haven't actually read much of him. Four novels and sixty short stories covers a lot of ground, and reveal a great deal more about him than is popularly known - and most of what's popularly known about him came from other depictions in film, stage and illustration. Yes, he's pretty badass in a fight; yes, he's always been a master of disguise; yes, he's always been a bit of a pompous dick; and no, Doyle never mentioned him wearing a deerstalker cap. So yes, director Guy Ritchie's Holmes is pretty faithful - all the elements are presented and accounted for in the source material, and this article does a good job at proving it.

But where all the online talk has been about how faithful the character is, few people have noticed that the biggest departure has been in the tone of the film - even the genre. Doyle's stories have always, first and foremost, been mysteries - the plots were driven by either who did the crime, or how they pulled it off. This movie is not a mystery. Sure, there are scenes where Holmes shows off his brilliant deductive skills, and they are as much fun as they were in the stories; there's even a bit at the climax where he lays bare all the villain's plans. But those aren't what drives the plot. What keeps you watching isn't who did it or how. What keeps you watching is how the good guys are gonna beat the bad guys. It's an action movie.

So yes, Sherlock Holmes is an action movie. And yes, it's a pretty good one. You don't see many action movies set in Victorian London for one, and the setting is quite nicely realized - the CGI backgrounds are a little too obviously green-screened, but the sets and locations look great. There's a fight scene in a shipyard, another in a meat packing plant, a climactic fight atop a still-in-construction Tower Bridge, and it's all quite well done and effectively thrilling. And yes, the plot is Sherlock Holmes vs Spooky Supernatural Shit (somewhat), which is also kinda cool. It's far from airtight - you're likely to reach for something in your fridge a couple days later and suddenly think "wait, that bit there didn't make any sense" - but it moves fast enough that you won't notice it at the time.

It's also a buddy action movie, starring whom may be the archetypal buddies, Holmes and Watson. And here's another departure from Doyle's canon - I don't recall their relationship ever being so contentious. You may have watched the trailer where Watson punches Holmes in the face; yes, he does, and yes, Holmes deserved it. Holmes behaves very much like a jilted lover here, all because Watson is leaving their carefree bachelor lifestyle - and bachelor pad - behind for marriage. Yes, it's just a little gay, but then again all close male friendships onscreen are a little gay nowadays. Watson is at least a smart and capable sidekick this time, rather than the bumbling dimwit he's often been portrayed as; he's even as badass in a fight as Holmes. And yes, their banter is fun, with plenty of that uniquely British bombastic wit.

Robert Downey Jr. isn't going to replace Brett anytime soon, but he's lots of fun here. Iron Man proved he's one of the most charismatic leading men in Hollywood today, and likewise here he commands the screen and never delivers a joke that falls flat with the audience. The rest of the cast are just kind of adequate, really. Jude Law is a perfectly serviceable Watson - his may be casting against type, since Law seems a perfectly reasonable candidate to play Holmes himself. The gamble... pretty much breaks even. Mark Strong bears an uncanny resemblance to Andy Garcia; he looks mean enough, but never really comes across as a worthy adversary to Holmes. Rachel McAdams is a little young to play Irene Adler, really, and here she's also just adequate.

Incidentally, that Irene Adler is in this movie is more proof that, despite its title, Sherlock Holmes isn't trying to be a definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes (she's only ever appeared in one story, it's the fans that have proclaimed her the One True Love of Holmes' Life). It's a pastiche - it takes beloved familiar characters, puts them in unfamiliar situations, and just has fun with it. But there's nothing wrong with that. Holmes has long been one of the most popular literary figures, not just because of the stories or the character - because he's also in the public domain. The key to making a successful pastiche is to get the right things right (the characters) and the other things fresh (the plot). So on that note, does Guy Ritchie succeed? Yes.

Expectations: hmmm