Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes: The game's afoot!

Sherlock Holmes (2009) • View trailer for Sherlock Holmes
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and brief sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.30.09
Buy DVD: Sherlock Holmes • Buy Blu-Ray: Sherlock Holmes [Blu-ray]

Arthur Conan Doyle purists likely will sputter and take solace in the canonical 56 short stories and four novels, while more aggressive members of various Baker Street Irregulars societies will pen waspish editorials in their newsletters, but that won't change the facts: Director Guy Ritchie's audacious re-imagining of the world's most famous consulting detective is impressively realized.

And a lot of fun.
Watson (Jude Law, left) and Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), relaxing in their digs
at 221 B Baker Street, ponder a particularly devilish detail in a case that grows
weirder -- and possibly more supernatural -- by the day.

Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes  with a stylish original script by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg and Lionel Wigram  isn't even close to being the most outré send-up of Holmes and his faithful companion, Dr. Watson; half a dozen earlier projects could vie for that title (my vote for the most wretched being the 1977 Dudley Moore/Peter Cook version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, easily one of the worst movies ever unleashed on an unsuspecting public).

Ritchie is, it therefore must be said, being pilloried both unnecessarily and unfairly. True, this new Sherlock Holmes owes much to co-producer Joel Silver's bombastic, testosterone-fueled school of filmmaking; the frequent bouts of fisticuffs border on the bone-shattering absurd, and at least one of the more vicious death-traps seems to have escaped from the Saw horror franchise.

But the sense and mood of Doyle's brooding detective, along with his environment, are spot-on. Production designer Sarah Greenwood (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) has done a phenomenal job of re-creating Victorian London, albeit with considerable assistance from the special-effects team that  as just one example  fills the Thames with meticulously authentic 19th century water craft.

Elsewhere, the half-constructed Tower Bridge looms with exposed steel frames and wooden walkways across that same mighty river: an imposing set piece that we just know will figure prominently in this story's climax.

Holmes' cluttered lodgings at 221 B Baker Street are brought to life with similar fidelity to Doyle's original vision. While I couldn't spot the detective's correspondence stuck to the fireplace mantel with an oversized knife, I did note the glass-covered hive of bees, phrenology charts, anatomical drawings, chemical retorts and sagging piles of dog-eared books and scattered newspapers.

And if Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes combats the frustration of boredom with bare-knuckle boxing, as opposed to a seven-percent solution of cocaine, that seems a minor quibble; either way, the man remains the cheerful misogynist and raging manic depressive that we all know and love.

Indeed, Downey's mesmerizing performance  his coldly analytical approach to any conundrum, his wild mood swings, his foolhardy tendency to charge where angels would fear to tread  ranks as one of cinema's most authentic portrayals of Doyle's famed detective.

The liberties taken with Jude Law's Watson are somewhat more visible. We always wondered how the good doctor had time to maintain a medical practice when he was so often haring off with Holmes on some new case, and then recording all the details and transforming the more interesting challenges into stories for the Strand. This Watson also apparently took far greater advantage of the military training he would have received prior to his war service in Afghanistan; he's a crack shot with his beloved service revolver and every bit as capable in a furious brawl as his companion.

Trying to picture Law's Watson ministering to the ailments of simpering high-society types seems an almost impossible stretch; this man of action couldn't possibly be satisfied with so sedentary a career.

And yet that's precisely the quiet background crisis that occupies much of this film. Watson has grown weary of the unpredictability of life with Holmes; the story opens as the good doctor prepares to abandon his Baker Street room, anticipating a quiet career as physician and soon-to-be husband of Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly, well remembered as one of the most interesting characters in the 2002 ensemble film L'auberge Espagnole and its 2005 sequel, Russian Dolls).

Holmes is bereft, although he'd never admit as much; Victorian-era gentleman wouldn't be caught dead acknowledging even the deepest bond of friendship. An underlying current of brittle tension therefore fuels every exchange between these two men, occasionally bursting into ill-advised view, as when (for example) Holmes accepts Mary's challenge to employ his powers of deduction on her. He succeeds all too well, in a masterful scene that seethes with the intensity of Downey's performance.

Before Watson can make good his escape from Baker Street, however, he reluctantly acknowledges the need to close the door on old business: the hanging of the sinister Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, wonderfully malevolent), who was caught awhile back  during this film's rip-snorting prologue  as he prepared to sacrifice another in a string of young women slaughtered in brutal, ritualistic ways.

Blackwood has long claimed supernatural abilities and a link to dark forces, and he teases Holmes with the promise that he'll return from the grave. And, despite Watson's own pronouncement of death after what seems a successful execution, Blackwood's apparent resurrection becomes increasingly likely as new unsettling events  and mysterious murders  occur during the subsequent days.

This situation builds to a crisis when Blackwood's tomb is discovered in shambles, apparently burst open from the inside, with its coffin containing somebody else's body. At this point, superstitious panic strikes even the stalwart bobbies under the command of Scotland Yard's Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan, delivering just the right blend of admiration and irritation to his relationship with Holmes).

But if Blackwood has come back, what are his plans?

Irene Adler  forever immortalized on the basis of a single Doyle story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," in which she confounds Holmes and thus wins his undying admiration  somehow figures in these dire doings as well. As played here by the plucky and amiably sensuous Rachel McAdams, Irene has been transformed into a sort of globe-trotting international spy and master thief, whose hand Holmes has recognized in many of the world's most intriguing unsolved crimes.

The nature and spirit of Irene's relationship with Holmes remains faithfully authentic, however, and Ritchie has great fun orchestrating several encounters that allow this woman to tantalize and tease the detective who can't quite bring himself to hand her over to Lestrade.

Countless Holmes pastiches by other authors have speculated that these two eventually became a couple, either during the detective's apparent death and three-year disappearance following the events at Reichenbach Falls, or even after he retired to Sussex Downs and a life studying his beloved bees. Downey and McAdams make it abundantly clear that these two already have enjoyed a physical fling: one that leaves the great detective distinctly uncomfortable. This makes every scene shared by Downey and McAdams a treat.

The interactions between Downey and Law are equally charged, and it's safe to say that the two actors bring out the best in each other. If Downey is an impressively fascinating and flawed Holmes  and he is  then Law is equally fine as the more sober and fully grounded man of benevolent spirit and steadfast loyalty, torn between his best friend and the woman he has come to love.

David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, as Watsons to Jeremy Brett's television Holmes, did much to restore our image of the good doctor to the character as Doyle conceived him, but the dashing Law forever puts paid to the buffoonish clown Nigel Bruce made of Watson, in all those early films with Basil Rathbone. Downey and Law make an impressively compelling team.

Such riveting character dynamics aside, Ritchie gleefully spices his film with the same bad-ass villains and exaggerated misanthropes who populated some of his earlier pictures, most notably 2002's engaging and hilariously demented Snatch. It's a style Quentin Tarantino would enjoy and admire, and as such will be viewed with disdain by the aforementioned Holmes purists.

I would argue, however, that those same purist have tolerated far more egregious flights of literary fancy, in those countless 20th century Holmes pastiches. Besides, we must respect Ritchie and his writers, who certainly weren't required to remain even this faithful to Doyle's books. These characterizations of Holmes, Watson and Adler simply aren't that much of a stretch, and the action-packed climax, despite its crazed stuntwork, is pure Doyle-ian rationalism.

Besides, this Sherlock Holmes is imaginative, riveting and impressively entertaining. What more could we ask of a movie clearly designed as a crowd-pleaser?

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