Saturday, January 2, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with me and my taste in film well knows that I'm a fawning, obsequious fanboy for the James Bond franchise. Don't matter none which Bond actor it is or what decade it's from, put any one of those flicks in front of me and I'm all set for the next couple hours. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I enjoyed the hell out of a movie about a British detective pursuing a flamboyant supervillain while stumbling into action scenes and dropping one-liners, even if it may not be legitimately great cinema by any stretch of the imagination. Oh yes, Sherlock Holmes rocks.

Sure, some cranky critics and bloggers have griped that the new Holmes has little in common with Arthur Conan Doyle's classic novels and shorts stories beyond its setting, era, and the names and professions of its leads, and it's true — the tone and humor is a hell of a lot closer to Pirates of the Caribbean than Hound of the Baskervilles. But really, there's no signs that Conan Doyle ever saw his most popular works as high literature, and I think it's perfectly fitting that pulp literature was adapted into a pulp film. And even if I have it all wrong, I can't even pretend to give a shit. Maybe you think that makes me an illiterate rube, which is fair enough, and I'm certainly not here to tell annoyed Conan Doyle fans they have any obligation to love the flick, but I'm such a sucker for the vaguely Bondian pacing and structure of the thing that I'm already game for sequels.

Where this film differs from Bond this decade (as well as Star Trek, Star Wars, Batman, Spider-Man, and pretty much every single onscreen superhero) is that Sherlock Holmes is in no way, shape, or form an origin story. In fact, it's kind of the opposite: the film assumes that everyone knows who Holmes and Watson are well enough that it's comfortable beginning with the dissolution of their partnership. After years of adventuring and sleuthing together, Dr. John Watson got himself a lady and is getting hitched, moving out of 221B Baker Street, and returning to the respectable fold of medicine. Between this and a lack of cases, Holmes is despairing and drinking and drugging himself into a stupor (all played for comedy, of course). It's a bleakly hilarious way to start the film and I think it's ultimately for the best that we didn't have a film about Holmes getting his sleuthing skills, meeting Watson, their first case together, and so on. It just wouldn't have been necessary.

But of course it doesn't take a genius to figure out that Watson will be back once the shit hits the fan, albeit with reluctance and him and Holmes squabbling nonstop like a pair of a pair of jilted lovers. A London-based supervillain named Lord Blackwood, who's a combination of Jack the Ripper and pretty much any comic book or Saturday morning cartoon or Roger Moore era Bond villain you care to name, seems to have risen from the grave following his public execution and is a-schemin' and a-killin' once again. Is the supernatural real or is there some explanation? The game is afoot! And that's pretty much all you need to know — this is a character piece, not a tour de force of mystery storytelling.

I hope that at this point no one is surprised to learn that Robert Downey Jr. is up to the task, enduing Holmes with all the eccentricity and genius and wisecracks and occasional pathetic slovenliness you could hope for (and with a pretty good British accent, to boot). Up until May 2008 Downey Jr. was arguably the most underrated actor in the goddamn world, starring in great films that were also enormous box office bombs like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and Iron Man's greatest legacy may just be his upgrade to full-blown movie star. In a country that often chooses to elevate some of the blandest and shittiest people to star status, Downey Jr. is a resounding exception. And Jude Law, while not normally one of my favorite actors, has super-snappy chemistry with Downey Jr. (not to mention brazen homoeroticism; this is easily the most gay technically non-gay onscreen male friendship since Superbad, they wanna blow each other so bad) and thankfully doesn't give in to the appalling Nigel Bruce-founded tradition of playing Watson as an enormous dumbass. And that is much closer to Conan Doyle's books.

The real third lead in the film isn't Lord Blackwood or Inspector Lestrade and it sure as hell isn't Rachel McAdams' shoehorned-in-so-we-have-a-female-lead Irene Adler (who may have one of the smallest ratios of plot relevance to screentime I've seen in a movie this year), but the awesome 1890s London that director Guy Ritchie creates with a clever combination of location shooting and CGI, instantly recognizable as the rainy, moonlit London of cobblestone streets and eerie gaslight lamps that we all think of upon hearing the name Sherlock Holmes. I doubt that it's "realistic," per se, but it creates a mood and a vibe in broad strokes that serves the film's comic book tone perfectly. Beyond that, flick's got all the fights, cool action, exaggerated minutiae-centric sleuthing, and Robert Downey Jr. being a smug asshole you could want, so what more is there to say? Sure, I could gripe about some occasional wonky CGI, too many of the mysteries having random fictional chemicals as their solutions, and one scene where a dog farts for comedy, but to hell with it. This is pure popcorn pulp, and it gets the job done gleefully.

The film ends with an incredibly heavy-handed sequel hook (think Gordon showing Batman the Joker card in Batman Begins, but extended over five minutes and with tons of flashbacks and it having been revealed that the Joker was behind everything all along) making it super-obvious that another Holmes outing is planned in two or three years, and I say shit yeah. I've eaten crow for thinking this before (i.e. Pirates of the Caribbean), but it seems like it can only get better from here.

4 Stars out of 5

No comments: