Lock, stock, and two sorry buttheads
Look folks! The Sherlock Holmes© action figure!
He leaps! He kicks! He cracks the bad guy's kneecap with a bartitsu move, dodges explosions with spine-cracking dexterity! And when handcuffed to an ornate hotel room bed, shoots off hilariously inappropriate quips!
Please. The former Mr. Madonna's latest isn't so much a Holmes updated for our times as he is dumbed-down video game for the ADD crowd (Tekken Holmes, anyone?). They've tacked on a nefarious plot to gas the British Parliament with a cyanidelike gas, opposed him with an invincible hulking sparring partner not unlike 'Jaws' in the James Bond movies, and promised the involvement of Professor Moriarity in the already advertised sequel (we're not just out to snatch money from your wallet, we don't want to waste time doing it).
Perhaps the movie's only interesting idea is that Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) are a barely closeted couple (they share the apartment with their housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson) about to end their relationship in favor of Watson's marriage to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly)--basically borrowing the plot of the '20s theatrical classic The Front Page,” with Watson playing the wandering Hildy Johnson to Holmes' jealously possessive Walter Burns. Law and Downey do have a chemistry, a kind of frat-boy bonhomie that's diverting, even intriguing; when a bomb explodes and either Watson or Holmes is down and hurt and one hovers over the other, mortally worried, you keep expecting their lips to meet in that ever-promised kiss--
--which never happens. Either a bigger bomb explodes or the huge French thug shows up, prompting Richie to throw the picture into slow motion, fists swooshing like jet fighters. Ritchie might be called the Michael Bay of British cinema, with his fondness for larger-than-life action sequences barely held together by a supposedly witty script (in that he's probably Bay's superior--I've yet to see evidence of wit in a Bay movie, much less a script). There's too much loud business, too much smoke and sparks and Rube Goldberg devices whirring around for Downey, Law, and Rachel McAdams (playing Irene Adler, the only woman to ever flummox Holmes, in “A Scandal in Bohemia”) to develop their characters: they remain cartoon sketches that pose prettily and run briskly, occasionally dropping a funny remark along the way in what nowadays passes for dialogue.
Much prefer Holmes' cinematic incarnations of past years. I'm familiar with Basil Rathbone, generally considered the definitive Holmes, but tend to gravitate towards more revisionist versions. There's Terence Fisher's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), full of the lurid color palette and shock imagery of classic Hammer horrors, plus Peter Cushing as an icy yet authoritative Holmes, Christopher Lee in a small role as Sir Charles Baskerville, and Andre Morell as a humane, uncharacteristically intelligent Dr. Watson.
Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) is an unusual chapter in the lives of both Holmes and Wilder--first, because the film has a distinctly romantic spirit; second, because Wilder (The Apartment (1960), Some Like it Hot (1959)), legendary for his fierce satirical bite, appears in this film to have developed a mellowed, almost toothless, tone. Actually, it's Wilder at a late stage of his career, when he seemed more concerned with capturing the essence of his characters instead of savaging them--in this case Holmes (Robert Stephens), at a relatively early stage of his career, and the reasons for his shyness towards women. The parallels are irresistible: both are famed cynics, both highly intelligent (one might say Holmes is the genius behind the magnifying glass, Wilder the genius behind the camera lens). Wilder pursues Holmes with the same relentless determination that Holmes pursues his quarries; Holmes resists analysis with the same stubborn determination that Wilder resists depicting easy heartbreak, easy tragedy. When Wilder finally runs the prey to ground--when he finally arrives at the reason behind Holmes' misogyny--it's as if a tiny crack had formed on a solid crystal; just the slightest of flaws, and only noticeable if you look closely, but definitely there, and startling to behold. Come to think of it, the film's title may be a misnomer--it isn't just of Holmes' life we're attempting to to catch a privileged glimpse.
Wilder's is a great take on Holmes, but my hands-down favorite is the Hayao Miyazaki's episodes of the animated TV series Sherlock Hound (1984 - 85). Yes, Holmes here is animated and yes, he's a hound, and yes in Miyazaki's hands he's a good-natured charmer. Operating on a short format--around twenty-five minutes per episode--and on the low budgets of TV animation, Miyazaki performs miraculous feats of storytelling, scattering vivid imagery along the way like a trail of gold coins--in “The Little Client,” for example, Moriarity's drop forge--a ravenous behemoth of a machine--goes berserk and stamps out forged coins in bizarre shapes: necklaces ("this would be nice for mother," Moriarity notes) and jellyfish ("this would be nice in her parlor"). In “The Abduction of Mrs. Hudson” Moriarity's nefarious plot to kidnap Holmes' housekeeper turns into a Peter Pan comedy, with Moriarity and his men as Lost Boys and Mrs. Hudson the beautiful young nanny they've waited for all their lives. And as if to prove he can be as revisionist as any recent cinematic genius, Miyazaki in “The White Cliffs of Dover” proposes that Mrs. Hudson is the true protagonist of the adventure, and that Holmes harbors a secret crush on her.
It's not difficult to see Holmes' appeal to storytellers of all mediums, of all ages: he's a cold, lonely genius, capable of the sharpest observations--a filmmaker or writer or storyteller's highest aspiration. More, they project themselves into Holmes--in Fisher's hands Holmes is an intellectual titan but also a physical adventurer; in Wilder's case he's a cynic who has built a shell around him for protection; in Miyazaki's case he's a great detective able to relate to children because deep inside he's still a boy at heart, a gentle one at that (don't knock gentleness--it's the most difficult quality to portray, convincingly and entertainingly, on the big screen, and Miyazaki is a master). Given that in this latest incarnation Ritchie's Holmes is a frequent runner, a habitual boxer, an occasional nudist (albeit involuntary), a boor and a slob and an irresistible attractor of inordinately large explosions, what does this Holmes say of this filmmaker?
First published on Businessworld, 1.8.10