Sherlock Holmes (2009)
This is a bad time to be Sherlock Holmes. People go to blockbusters to shut off their mind for two hours. "I don't want to think when I go to the movies," is a common complaint I hear from some corners. How do you make a Sherlock Holmes story for this crowd? The Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes is the ultimate hero of the mind, a man who excels because he is always paying attention when everyone around him is not. Now we live in a time when unique minds aren't nearly as valued in our culture as unique six-pack abs. And so the new Sherlock Holmes by director Guy Ritchie gives us the Holmes we deserve: a man of unparalleled deductive powers with a torso so hard and grooved you could grate Parmesan cheese on it. As played by Robert Downey Jr., Holmes has a peerless body to match his peerless brain though we never once see him run or lift weights or exercise in any way that could give someone such a sculpted physique. In Holmesian lingo, we might call it The Mystery of The Rippling Musculature.
In truth, Downey's Holmes still does plenty of sleuthing, though I wish Ritchie and his screenwriters had used a bit more brains themselves while creating this overly elaborate film for him to star in. The old Basil Rathbone - Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films were economical entertainments: 70 lean minutes of mystery, atmosphere, and intrigue. Ritchie's version runs a bloated 128 minutes, with too many subplots involving female supporting characters who have clearly been added to make the film more women friendly (or, as one of my Twitter followers observed, to remove any potential accusations of homosexuality between Holmes and Watson). Downey's Holmes and Jude Law's Watson have a strong, chummy chemistry onscreen but the addition of Watson's new fiance Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) doesn't so much add friction between the characters at it does distraction to the film. And Rachel McAdams as a former flame of and potential adversary to Holmes has neither the chemistry with Downey nor the importance to the central narrative to justify her presence.
Too bad, because the movie does have its charms, as does any recent film with Downey as its lead. A few hours before I saw the new Holmes, I caught one of the old Rathbone films on TCM and was struck by how much of a dick Holmes is. Yes, a certain amount of arrogance is built into the character -- he's smarter than everyone around him and he knows it -- but in 1944's The Pearl of Death, he's such a pompous douche we almost want to start rooting for his enemies. In one scene, he proves a theory about a crime by barging into a store, ordering Watson around like a servant, and damaging the shopkeeper's inventory without explanation or apology. Downey's Holmes is just as egotistic but far more charismatic. His secret, I think, is to play the character as a man out of control. This Holmes would be polite if he could but he is completely at the mercy of his own talents. Between cases, he sits in his study inventing silencers for pistols or new paralyzing enzymes, because he feels compelled to do it. His genius does not come with an off-switch or a filter.
The mystery's a good one, involving an occult leader (Mark Strong) who manages to survive his own execution with apparent supernatural powers the ever-rational Holmes is eager to disprove. And so he does, with a mixture of careful observation and carefully choreographed fist fights, including one in an underground bare-knuckling boxing match that he starts because...wait, why does he do that again? Right, because it's not enough for Holmes to be smart. In The Pearl of Death, Rathbone's Holmes is holding the pearl thief at gunpoint when the villain manages to lunge at him, grab his gun, and turn the tables on him. Not only would Downey's Holmes never lose a fight with a man like that, he'd be able to dodge the bullets if he did (something Downey does do in the new film, in an admittedly clever sequence). But then a man as smart as Sherlock Holmes knows he must adapt to the times he lives in.