Saturday, January 2, 2010

1) Sherlock Holmes (2009)

1) Sherlock Holmes (2009) Dir: Guy Ritchie Date Released: December 2009 Date Seen: January 1, 2010 Rating: 4/5

As with Guy Ritchie's two other pictures made after his apocalyptic remake of Swept Away (2002), a film my colleagues assure me is not only the lowest lowlight of his career but also one of artistic expression in general, his Sherlock Holmes exhibits a pompous, preternatural intelligence. These most recent projects make Ritchie look like a grad school terror that adores dissecting his generic protagonists' egos, as in Revolver (2005), a trippy meta-gangster drama where the warring halves of Jason Statham's antihero ex-con personality create an elaborate scenario to prevent him from destroying his own sense of self-importance. Ritchie's version of Sherlock Holmes likewise assumes that he understands Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's ever-calculating alabaster sleuth better than Doyle did himself. And his team of four screenwriters say as much through Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), the film's villain, when he goads Holmes through prison bars that he knows that Holmes's love of logic is only a facade for a very "fragile" personality. From that assumption, Ritchie extrapolates that Holmes is primarily a vain man-boy and a databank of minutiae as a consequence. He also happens to know Jiu jitsu and as a consequence, he's often using his fists and running his mouth more than he's pensively digesting evidence.

That kind of brazen attitude towards the character is a good part of why Ritchie's Holmes is such an unclean delight. Though it may not always seem like it, Ritchie clearly has a grasp of the character that extends beyond his film's bubbly, indomitable screwball pacing. His Holmes, played by Robert Downey Jr., only has so much room in his head so hygiene and social niceties are a foreign concept to him (Doyle's Holmes compares his mind to an attic, insisting that one must carefully choose what one puts in it, leaving nothing inconsequential behind). He tests drugs on himself and his pet bulldog because of his skewed sense of scientific curiosity (Doyle's Holmes insists that every action has a logical cause and nothing is immaterial, making his infamous dalliance with heroin his way of collecting evidence for a future case). He also has a wealth of bawdy jokes and fighting moves at his disposal and uses the latter more than liberally (This is the biggest stretch of the film: Doyle's Holmes has dabbled at boxing and recreational shooting but he's also someone that loves to go undercover in order to literally beat the police to the punch so brawling isn't necessarily an unreasonable extension of his repertory).

Ritchie's version of John Watson, Holmes' heterosexual shadow, is likewise an invigorating extension of his boredom with the aura of unimpeachable austerity that surrounds Doyle's noble egotist. His Watson (Jude Law) constantly bickers with Holmes, making him seem like half of a gay Hawksian duo (Doyle's Watson was always more reserved in his feelings towards Holmes but also persistently trailed his better half so obsessively because of his ardent admiration for his intelligence. The fact that Holmes always rhetorically relates the facts of any given case to him as if Watson were a slow but gifted schoolboy nicely relates a kernel of submissive sexual tension that Ritchie's screenwriters playfully blow out of proportion).

The best part of Ritchie's version of Holmes is that it plays to his strengths and downplays his most recent films' smug weaknesses. Revolver and RocknRolla (2008), both of which Ritchie scripted (though Luc Besson was involved at one point with the former film), spend too much time showing off and not enough time extending their intriguing but underdeveloped central concepts. Thanks to Holmes's screenwriters' not inconsiderable talents, the film spends most of its time moving, whether through its many action scenes, which rely more on speed and humor than choreography, and tit-for-tat verbal sparring, which are infinitely more sustainable and even more ebullient.

The film's biggest weakness, after its fugly panoramic views of CGI Victorian London, are its immaterial plot, specifically in Lord Blackwood's high-falutin speeches about the dark arts and taking back America, but that's why the film's called Sherlock Holmes and not The Case of the Tedious Supernatural Fraud (How many times does Holmes have to debunk the supernatural for pastiche writers to get that readers/viewrs know that in Holmes's world, there's no such thing as things that go bump in the night?). Downey's stock blueblood-brat-cum-idiot savant character is more in tune with his character than its been in a long while. Though Rachel McAdams, Eddie Marsan and the rest of Ritchie's characteristically stellar supporting cast do a very good job, Downey and Law's repartee really make you want to care enough to accept that for once, Ritchie really knows what he's doing.

Note: Part of me wants to say that the most enjoyable cinematic pastiches of Holmes' exploits that I've seen are the ones that take the piss out of the character like Without a Clue (1988) or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), which incidentally, is not about Mycroft Holmes, who was always my favorite Holmes character before poor Lestrade. But I don't think that that's necessarily fair or consistently true.

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