Sherlock Holmes (2009)
(Guy Ritchie, GB, 2009)
More elemental than elementary, Ritchie’s Holmes is a fightin’, jokin’ geezah. But, as lovingly played by Robert Downey, Jr, he’s also an effective, convincing Sherlock
Some characters just can’t help but get a regular overhaul at the movies and Sherlock Holmes, with his master detective skills and iconic pipe-and-deerstalker image, is one of the stalwarts. There have been countless remakes of the Arthur Conan Doyle template: some reverential, some political (Holmes as WWII Nazi-hunter), some comedic (Without a Clue) and even the kid-friendly Amblinisation of Young Sherlock Holmes.
Yet surely nobody anticipated an action buddy-movie, helmed by Guy Ritchie under the tutelage of Joel Silver? And yet that’s exactly what this version of the Holmes story is. Anathema to purists, and just as much a cause for concern for anybody else who’s remotely interested in film. However, taken on its own irrepressible terms, it isn’t all that bad and even, to some degree, captures the essence of Holmes and Watson.
Rebooting Holmes as one of Ritchie’s all-action bare-knuckle fighters sounds disastrous; fortunately, somebody has thought carefully how to map one onto the other. Holmes is only a good fighter here because of his tactical nous – lovingly rendered by Ritchie in trademark slo-mo as Holmes explains his strategy before he unleashes it in subliminally fast real-time. It’s a neat visual conceit to explain Holmes’ genius to today’s video-game generation, and rediscovers Holmes as both thinker and doer after being regarded in popular culture for too long as an entirely cerebral figure. [Another thing: how refreshing, in these days of origins stories, to find a franchise-in-the-making that gives us Holmes fully-formed – if anything, the film aspires to the opposite cliché, the buddy-movie trope of ‘one week before retirement, with much of the dynamic stemming from Watson’s desire to leave Holmes’ employ.]
Overall, this is a remarkably positive depiction of Holmes, paying lip service to the dark side of addiction and thwarted romance without never letting these things appear to get in the way of Holmes having a good time. Then again, he is played by Robert Downey, Jr, playing the idealised rambunctious hellraiser as only he can. Here’s a part he probably wouldn’t have got without Iron Man, and yet it’s a far better fit for him, showing off that askew charm, intelligence and the mercurial sense that he’s living to his own rhythm. The old Chaplin accent helps, too – Downey, Jr sounds right in English. In short, he’s an absolute dude.
Downey, Jr cuts such swaggering presence that Ritchie (ever one for the buddy-banter) can afford to make Dr Watson a compelling, formidable figure in his own right. Jude Law – an actor too often given to window-dressing – seems energised by the chance to push his star to greater heights. This is a Law we haven’t really seen before: hiding his looks behind a ridiculous moustache, he’s suave, wry and – whisper it! – likeable. Law plays Watson as a man would be the ideal hero in ordinary circumstances, but who has the good grace to recognise his best friend has raised the bar. Essentially, it’s the difference between a star and merely an actor, and Law is all the better for recognising it.
The only shame is that the story that accompanies these well-(re)conceived characters doesn’t really deserve them. It’s typical cookie-cutter nonsense about an apparent black magic sect, overwritten in terms of zig-zagging plot but underwritten on yer actual nuts-and-bolts story so that the pace occasionally flags. Curiously, this may be due to the choice of director, as the last-act detective reveal needed by the genre is the exact opposite of how Ritchie normally works. Here’s a Guy who likes to toss up the cards upfront and see how they fall; here, he has to keep them up his sleeve, and there are periods where the film visibly stands around, looking lost as to what to do.
Perhaps that’s why there’s so much action, allowing Ritchie to confirm that, on home turf, he’s pretty good at what he does. OK, so he’s still overdoing the jittery high-speed frame-fucking, but one extended brawl, that starts in a laboratory and snowballs to bring down a ship in a dry dock, might be the best thing he’s done: a comic-brutal choreography of kicks, punches and Downey Jr’s masterful double-takes.