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.)ROBERT DOWNEY JR. AND JUDE LAW IN SHERLOCK HOLMES: EVERYTHING MATTERS BUT CHARACTER, THEME, AND STORYNot bad, for a travesty
On the one hand turning Arthur Conan Doyle's cerebral Victorian detective into a scruffy action hero is a terrible idea (and formally speaking, a travesty). On the other hand, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law (as Holmes and Watson) are (however dubious the conception) excellent in their roles, and this is the most coherent, as well as the most expensive, film the ham-handedly hip British director Guy Ritchie, perhaps most famous as Madonna's ex, has ever done.
Having been steeped in Sherlock Holmes stories as a youth, I can recognize all the many trappings, characters, and ideas of the originals that are carried over into this Christmas Day blockbuster, while finding none of the original atmosphere and personalities here at all. Partly my sense of outrage is due to reading at least a very large chunk of an old but richly satisfying Complete Sherlock Holmes
, a thick volume on tissue-thin India paper. Partly it's due to seeing various previous Holmes incarnations on film, which go back over a century. The preeminent incarnation was undoubtedly Basil Rathbone's tall, deep-voiced, long-faced version, with the big meerschaum pipe (now taken over by Tarantino's juicy Nazi villain Col. Landa), the tweeds, the cape-like overcoat, the deerstalker hat, and the traditional lines, of which "Elementary, my dear Watson" is the most famous. Above all it was the voice, rich, resonant, elegantly West End English, utterly authoritative. Robert Downey Jr.'s staccato delivery is witty. It's not always quite audible. He's thrown away the deerstalker and the meerschaum for a straight black pipe and a bowler. And that's fine because he doesn't seem anything like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes. Downey Jr. likes to toss off his lines; sometimes they fall before we've caught them. He's bright and quick witted and his motormouthed manner has always been above all suited to keeping the ball rolling. He does that fine here, and he and Jude Law play off each other with excellent chemistry. It's all a lark. And a very well-tooled disaster. Because somehow the action of this actioner doesn't matter. The villain isn't really scary, the danger doesn't feel dangerous, the suspense isn't suspenseful. It's fast and skillful and complicated and loud and sometimes in its overly-dark processed way rather beautiful (like female interests Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly), but it doesn't grab you.
It's okay to design a modern Sherlock Holmes, I guess. But if you do, why steep your movie in Victorian atmosphere? Ritchie's costly film, rich in CGI and spectacular action set pieces, is set in the grimiest of 19th century Londons, with an elegantly slovenly Sherlock Holmes to match. Every moment and every scene is designed to tell us this is Sherlock Holmes
, but every moment of every scene has elements in it to tell us that Sherlock Holmes
is absolutely what this is not.
Traditionally Holmes is the quintessential intellectual sleuth. You've got that here. Robert Downey Jr's Holmes is a keen observer of detail; he can tell just by scrutinizing her person that Watson's fiancee has had a previous failed engagement -- much to her annoyance, and pointlessly; Watson already knew this. Holmes is also a clever inventor -- like his evil adversary, Lord Blackwood. (This individual is played by Mark Strong, who is the villain in two movies opening this week, this and Young Victoria
, where he is the evil Lord Conroy. Is England short on villain material nowadays, or were all the other candidates working on a new political satire with Armando Iannucci and Peter Capaldi?)
Anyway, the trouble with Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes
, which looks like it's set up for a sequel, judging by the way Holmes' perennial opponent Professor Moriarity is mentioned at the end, is not that anything whatsoever is left out. It's that nothing
is left out, and on top of all the traditional trappings (slightly distorted, like turning the deerstalker into a bowler), too much is added, of a very distracting and inappropriate nature. All the details of 221B Baker Street and of Holmes and Watson, now locked into an amped-up love-hate relationship that needs a fiancée to save the pair from Brokeback Mountain
overtones, are dutifully, if not lovingly, preserved, along with the rationcination and the battles of wits with a fiendishly malevolent opponent, only this has been plugged into an action movie matrix, with Holmes additionally transformed into a martial arts master skilled at bruising organs and smashing bones, and with this comes all the loud noise and speeded up and slowed down CGI-assisted footage and hypertrophied musical background complete with bangs and thumps. It's about like the way the disco team of Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band redid Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
as the bouncy dance tune called "A Fifth of Beethoven."
All this is great for action blockbuster fans. Ritchie's Sherlock Holme
s is a relief from the ponderous over-signifying of the genre. This is a lark, though sometimes a brutal one. But mostly as A.O. Scott says this movie Sherlock has "loutish, laddish cool", and the movie is "a series of "poses and stunts" that are "intermittently diverting." But supposing you're a lover of Beethoven: how much will you get out of Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band? Not a whole lot. And ultimately there's not a whole lot here, which, come to think of it, despite all the extra millions added in the production this time, has always been true of Guy Ritchie's movies. Some people aren't very good, and yet they keep getting promoted to better-paying jobs. But it's not that Ritchie has no talent, and certainly not true that he has no energy. But as somebody said, his trouble is he doesn't care about character, theme, or even storytelling; he only cares about being cool. Here, he doesn't care about the mystery. And that's the answer to the mystery of why this movie leaves you cold.