Sherlock Holmes

Holmes uses his keen intellect—to KICK ASS!
★★
☆☆
Released: 
2009
Director: 
Guy Ritchie
Starring: 
Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong
The Setup: 
Attempt to start a Sherlock Holmes movie franchise.
Discussion: 

This always looked terrible to me, which doesn’t mean I didn’t want to see it, and as my friend actually did WANT to see it, off we went. I read The Hound of the Baskervilles back in the day, and this touched off a brief Holmes obsession, in which I got one of those volumes of the complete works featuring Holmes and read about a quarter of it—then suddenly lost all interest. What I’m saying is that I do have some familiarity with the literary Holmes, although I stopped short of his most major works. Not that any of that really applies to this film.

We begin with fun Warners and Village Roadshow logos made out of cobblestones. Then Holmes and Watson are running in somewhere to save some girl from some sort of ritual. Here we have the first of two sequences in which we see Holmes calculate how to beat up an enemy; hit the ears, then the ribs, etc., then follow through to act it out. He and Watson kick ass and stop the whatever and arrest Lord Blackwood, caught in the act. Then Holmes is considered to be “between cases,” during which times we are lead to believe he goes a little nuts. He does drugs, performs kooky experiments, blocks out the sunlight, and periodically goes out to fight in these boxing match things. Here is where we get the second of our plan-first-then-kick-ass sequences, during which Holmes plots how to break the ribs, dislocate the jaw and crush the knee of his opponent, saying it will take the guy six months to recover physically, and have psychological scars that will last much longer. Now, let’s think about this: Our HERO is planning to give serious, life-threatening injuries to this guy who is not his enemy, just a casual opponent in a boxing match, and is especially relishing the psychological damage he will casually inflict. So not only are we to accept the idea that Sherlock Holmes is a skilled martial artist, but he’s a serious sadist? Our HERO wants to break bones and jaws and inflict lasting damage just because? Why not have a scene where he sticks firecrackers up cat’s butts?

Many of the reviews of this film mention that it is suffused to homoeroticism, mostly because Holmes and Watson live together and especially Holmes’ resistance, seeming to be repressed jealousy, over Watson’s impending marriage. Yeah, I suppose, and it does seem that the woman present in the film are shoved squarely forward in order to divert discussion away from the homoerotic elements, and yes, that element has always been there but… in this case I don’t think acknowledging that leads to any interesting discussion or lends any new insight to the characters.

So Blackwood calls Holmes to see him in prison before he’s hung, where we see that he’s made a guard go mad and is supposedly having a strange effect on the other prisoners. He tells Holmes that three more people will die and that he and Holmes are tied into something that will rend the fabric of nature, or some such. Soon after he is hung, and Watson himself checks his pulse. Not long after he is buried, police find his grave broken out from within, a dwarf buried inside, and a witness who says he saw Blackwood rise from the grave. Holmes is put on the case.

In here, Rachel McAdams shows up as the only woman to have a hold on Holmes’ heart, a master thief who apparently runs around seducing men for money and other shady deeds. This is the first role I’ve seen McAdams kind of clang in. She’s not awful, she just doesn’t seem very Victorian, at all, even though they shoehorn in a line about her New Jersey origins to explain her lack of accent. She’s also completely unnecessary to the story. Except that in this case the story is also unnecessary to the story, so I don’t know why I’m bothering to complain. Anyway, soon after she’s introduced there is another good sequence where we see something, then later see it again with an explanation of what we saw the first time, and as it’s one of the few clever things, I’ll leave it for you.

So Holmes and Watson go here, go there, bicker over this and that, and have several scenes in which Watson says Holmes will have to be on the case by himself this time, then ends up relenting and coming along. They have one big fight with this huge thug, then a chase, then continue their fight in a shipyard, which ends with one cool element, which is this huge iron spool that comes crashing through, almost obliterating them. That may have been my favorite thing about the film. That and the logos in the cobblestones. Both of these add up to maybe seven seconds.

So around now I look at my watch and I see it’s about an hour in and I realize that I am completely uninvolved in this film. I have no idea what the villain’s plot is and I have no interest in finding out. Downey and Jude Law have a nice chemistry together, but you know, there’s not much worse than someone who is not much of a wit attempting to write “witty banter.” And the screenwriters prove not exactly to be Oscar Wilde. The whole element of Watson’s marriage and the separation of the team has no weight whatsoever—we all know they’re going to stay together [although at least they had the taste not to kill Watson’s fiancée in order to make this happen]. McAdams is there to add tits, but has pretty much nothing else to do. At a certain point we see a headline saying “London In Terror!” but we’ve had no scenes showing that, and it causes a moment of you saying “Wait, is London in terror? Why?”

There’s not much else to say about the plot. Eventually it’s revealed that the one comprehensible thing about Blackwood’s nefarious plot, whatever it was, is to kill Parliament. Only the whole thing is so shapeless you never know if this is the GOAL, or just one step toward the goal, which makes you wonder if we’re at the climax or just one big set piece. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, but what it means is that the big final scene is over before you say “Oh, I guess THAT was the big final scene.” In fact, the movie as a whole is so shapeless the only way you know it’s over is that Holmes and the villain are having a big fistfight in a “climactic” location, and the villain dies [only in such a way you’re not even sure of that]. My regular movie buddy recently asked me to give an example of what I mean when a movie is “shapeless,” and I couldn’t think of a specific film. Now, this is my example.

The fights and action sequences are just somehow unexciting. I think it’s because of Ritchie’s unending cinematic tricks—speed-ups and slow-downs, skip-frame footage, obvious CGI—all things that announce to you “some filmic TECHNIQUE is happening here!” but in doing that take the audience OUT of getting involved in the action. The best example is a late series of explosions that suddenly, disastrously, goes super slo-mo, mutes the sound, and is so obviously a massive CGI construction that any of its impact is gone. Certainly the last thing it is is EXCITING. And this is my major complaint about the film—it’s just dull. The villain’s plan is so obscure we can’t get involved in whether he is succeeding or not. There are a bunch of thugs Holmes has to fight, but since we have no idea what the villain is up to, they’re just these random guys he fights. He investigates, but we don’t know the significance of anything he finds [they’re saving it for the big explanation at the end—in two parts, btw], so it’s impossible to get involved in the mystery. There’s a big setback, which you only know because they tell you—i.e. there’s no change in tone or technique. The thing just begins, proceeds, and ends, with no peaks and valleys, no raising of the pulse or involvement in the characters or mystery. This is what I mean by shapeless.

Should we discuss Holmes’ intellect and whether they are able to convey it? It does seem a rather pointless topic. He is shown as super-smart, in addition to having a great, lithe body—despite doing drugs and never exercising—being a master fighter, having an ultra-sensitive sense of smell [again, despite doing drugs, including cocaine], and all-round action superhero. His intellect here is shown largely as I recall from the novels and stories, in the vein of observation/conclusion, such as: “You have sand on your shoes—therefore you must have been to the beach!” And, as I recall it was in the written works, it just so happens that Holmes is pretty much never, ever wrong. A problem for the film, as mentioned, is that it saves most of his conclusions for the big explanation of the end, which again, is like it was in the written works, but here prevents us from getting involved in the story. We see him going about his investigations, but are left out of what he’s doing.

The real question to ask is: Why do all our current movie heroes have to be EXACTLY THE SAME? Isn’t it enough that Holmes just be smart? Does he have to be an ass-kicking martial artist? Well, obviously for reasons related to the level of education in the United States he does, but then, how is he different from Wolverine? From Batman? From Downey’s own Iron Man? Really it’s only a matter of which one broods more than the others. Furthermore, this movie, being set in Victorian England, makes one reflect on how heroes nowadays must be so superhuman [they’re ALL super-smart, super-hot, super-fighters] that there’s really no way for them to be JUST human, and ultimately, for all the millions of things they can do, they are incredibly limited. Because everything has to be THE BIGGEST, MOST SHOW-STOPPING FIGHT EVER!!! You can’t have things just happen on a human level and be interesting.

For these and more reasons, you can understand why I was amusing myself all week imagining “Guy Ritchie’s Hamlet,” in which we see Hamlet wielding a machine gun, bellowing “NnnnnrrraaAAAUUUGGGHHHH!!!!!!” as he mows down the entire court at the end, Scarface-like.

Anyway, not awful, but definitely not great. And basically just an extended trailer for the next film. Normally I would say that if you’ve followed the literary exploits you’ll want to see it, but I think it’s the opposite in this case. If you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, you would definitely want to stay away.

Should you watch it: 

I say don’t bother. But if you have time to kill and money to waste and absolutely no inner resources whatsoever, I suppose there are worse things you could do.