Sherlock Holmes: Getting Back to 221B Baker Street’s Roots
The reboot of the traditional Sherlock Holmes we’ve seen on TV and film is not unlike the James Bond reboot a couple of years ago. Both characters are stripped of their previous film incarnations’ sense that they value gentlemanly behavior above all else. Holmes always was seen with the same hat and pipe, deep in thought, totally put together. In Guy Ritchie’s new film, Holmes is falling apart. He’s a shut-in, with no interest in the outside world other than his companion Watson, who is moving out. He does drugs, he is obnoxious, and he has a penchant for violence. In short, he fits perfectly into Guy Ritchie’s oeuvre. Sherlock Holmes is Ritchie’s best film, and while it all unravels at a bit too fast of a pace, Holmes was never one to spell it all out for us either. Most importantly, Ritchie realizes the entire film coasts on the chemistry of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as the leads, so he keeps the camera firmly on them as often as possible.
We meet Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) as they prevent the murder of a young girl in a Satanic ritual, presided over by Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Blackwood is sent to jail, leaving Holmes only to worry about Watson’s impending departure from 221B Baker Street and thinking of ways to make him stay. Before Blackwood is hung to death, his last words are, “Death is only the beginning.” As we learned from the Mummy movies– which used that exact same quote liberally– we know that despite Blackwood being hung and pronounced dead by Watson, he will return to kill more people. As Holmes and Watson try to get to the bottom of this mystery, Holmes is also set out on a side mission by femme fatale/former flame Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) to find a red-haired dwarf. Not surprisingly, the two cases overlap, leading to a series of exciting chase scenes and a suspenseful conclusion.
The main grievance I noted in reading other reviews of Sherlock Holmes is the departure from the traditional manifestation of Sherlock Holmes in cinema. Why? In the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he was a shut-in, a drug user, and an irritable know-it-all whose personal living quarters were constantly a mess and who shied away from the media’s camera (as noted in the first scene). In truth, Ritchie’s Holmes is the most loyal portrayal to Doyle’s stories that I’ve encountered. It’s obvious why the original films would leave out Holmes’ less heroic traits, but now in a time when the antihero is king, a drug-addled vain slob couldn’t be a hipper protagonist. While the fondness for boxing and the analytical breakdown of how to disarm an opponent is a new addition to his character that seems to go against the image of the shut-in addict (how does he stay in such good shape without leaving his apartment for months?), it gives the film a twinge of guilty pleasure and helps overcome some of the film’s larger leaps in logic.
Certainly there’s no hipper man to play the hip protagonist than Robert Downey Jr., who reinvigorated the superhero genre with his quick-talking sardonic antihero in Iron Man and who made blackface Academy-friendly with his Oscar-nominated role in the comedy Tropic Thunder. Without Holmes having something lovable underneath the roguish exterior, the film never would have worked, but Downey Jr. is one of the most likable movie stars working today. The difference between his speedy wit and Vince Vaughn’s is that Vaughn’s charisma is based on him being certain that he is correct despite whatever is coming out of his mouth– Downey Jr. gives us the same sort of ego with a little hint of a twinkle in his eye that asks us if we’re going to let him get away with it, as if he’s acknowledging his flaws without verbalizing them. This makes him more charming, more world-weary, more human. He’s an egoist without becoming a cartoon, and his ability to capture subtle emotions through his acting ability raises him to the very top of marquee stars in Hollywood today.
Ritchie has assembled a dynamo supporting cast as well. Jude Law turns in his best work in over half a decade as Watson– he’s always seemed to me a character actor trapped in a handsome leading man’s body, as his best work has been when playing a supporting role he can dive headfirst into (A.I., Road to Perdition, I Heart Huckabees, and here). Mark Strong hasn’t been on my radar since his appearance is different from film to film in everything I’ve seen him in, but here he delivers a memorable and complex adversary for Holmes– in the inevitable sequel where Moriarty inevitably appears, whoever plays him has his work cut out for him to top Strong’s magnetic performance. Eddie Marsan, my choice for Best Supporting Actor last year, is a joy to see in a big Hollywood film, doing his trademark blustery Brit routine. Finally, Rachel McAdams, my choice for most underrated young starlet, displays what she does best– playing intelligent women with good-girl looks and a smile that hints at mischief beneath the surface. It’s easy to see why Holmes is head over heels even though he knows she’s trouble.
I haven’t been the biggest fan of Ritchie’s British Tarantino films about seedy lowlifes in the past, but in Sherlock Holmes, he perfectly walks the tightrope between typical studio fare and subversive anti-Hollywood sentiment. The film dabbles in the traditional action genre often, throwing villainous flunkies at our two heroes as Hans Zimmer’s terrific bombastic score quickens our pulses. However, how many studio flicks have action heroes that use drugs and fail to take care of themselves? How many studio flicks have the two main action heroes’ relationship have homoerotic undertones so obvious that calling them undertones might be a misnomer? How many studio flicks have the hero perform a Satanic ritual that the villain engages in, in order to better understand the villain’s motives? At the end, though it’s not deep and it’s not flawless, it’s an engaging, funny, and exciting beginning of a franchise– the second for Downey Jr. He makes it look… well… elementary.