December 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (12/30/2009)

Lettergrade: B+

I don't know much about the Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes books, honestly, but the early ads for Guy Ritchie's big budget Sherlock Holmes movie seemed to be pretty antithetical to them. Isn't Holmes supposed to be a stuffy know-it-all who wears stupid looking hats and hides a cocaine addiction? Casting Robert Downey Jr. as the guy seems appropriate as far as the coke head and self-absorbed asshole stuff goes, but what about all the shots in the trailer where Holmes is a super sexed-up, shirtless, kick-boxin' action hero who can outrun exploding fireballs and cause all sorts of mayhem and destruction? Was there anything like that in the original books? I don't have an answer to these questions... I'm just wondering.

Whatever the case, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed the Holmes movie regardless of how faithful or unfaithful it might be to the source material. This is another strange case where the advertising makes the movie look a lot less appealing than it really is. Although there's certainly a lot of action stuff in there (most of which is actually pretty solid), there's also a good mystery plot, some clever sleuthing, and a great deal of wonderful byplay between Holmes and Jude Law's Dr. Watson, who almost steals the movie as the calm, stable center in Holmes' world of constant chaos.

The movie revolves around a crime plot, of course, but the details of it are weirdly hazy to me. The snooze-inducing Mark Strong plays the villainous Lord Blackwood, who belongs to some kind of cult that has the ambition of taking over England's government so they can reclaim the British Empire, etc, etc... conquer the world... yadda yadda. Blackstool appears to be a dark sorcerer of sorts and may have even risen from the grave after he was publicly executed, causing the London public to shit its collective pants in fear.

I felt weird about the fact that so much of movie deals with a highly supernatural element, which I also believe to be sort of anti-Holmes (unless, of course, we're talking about Barry Levinson's 1985 picture Young Sherlock Holmes, one of the forerunners of Harry Potter). Of course, this new movie's silly cult business has a resolution that I won't talk about here, but I will say that it seemed out of place for a good deal of the picture. I had always thought that Holmes was supposed to be based more in shit that was sort of plausible.

In classic Holmes tradition, there are scenes-a-plenty where Sherlock does explain many of the film's mysteries using his quirky OCD observations and a heavy dose of pseudo science. The film is miles above those shitty Da Vinci Code movies where they would have Tom Hanks rattle through a puzzle so quickly that you barely had time to understand whatever the fuck it was he just said before you the conclusion is reached. Holmes actually chews on the scenarios for a bit before deducing anything, which is a breath of fresh air indeed (despite the fact that it all builds up to a lengthy "Scooby Doo" scene toward the end where Holmes lays out things that he could have easily told us way earlier). Also, the Tower Bridge gets such an important introduction early that one of the characters might as well look into the camera and tell you that it will figure prominently into the film's climax up front.

Although there are clear influences from Harry Potter as well as Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow character from the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, the producers really made use of the Batman Begins template more than anything else here. They even set up the villain for the next movie (Holmes' arch nemesis Moriarity) toward the end of this one, much in the spirit of how Lt. Gordon whips out the Joker card at the end of Begins, paving the way for Health Ledger to assume the part three years later in The Dark Knight. Similarly, Ritchie leaves Moriarity shrouded in shadows in this one so they can cast whomever they want as the odious super villain whenever the next one rolls around. I don't want to give away any secrets, but I'm betting it will be Andy Dick.

All in all, it may piss off some Holmes purists, but it is a highly engaging movie in its own right and one of the better ones I've seen in a while. At 130 minutes, I'd argue that they maybe should have lost 20 or so (which seems to be my comment about every movie these days!), but so much was well done that it's hard to criticize it for overstaying its welcome a little.

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