So I’ve been a bit slow on the reviews since the X-Men weekend and it’s shown in the drop off in site visits. So here’s a review to get things moving again. Tonight I present Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. Pretty good coincidence that this came from lovefilm a few days after reviewing the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the film that’s partly responsible for bringing Robert Downey Jr back to the mainstream. Obviously Iron Man was the film that really upped his popularity again, but here’s a film that’s managed to give him another potential action vehicle to keep him in the cinemas every summer. So how is Sherlock Holmes? Click the link to fnd out.
Sherlock Holmes is one of those staples of English lore. He goes right alongside tales of Robin Hood, the works of HG Wells and other English luminaries such as Alan Moore and Shakespeare as being a key ingredient in British literature. He’s possibly responsible modern Comic book tales too. His early adventures were the product of pulp novels designed to offer thrills, adventure and mystery and the influence of that sort of story is clear in a lot of modern comics and other such books. He is the original crime fighting hero. He even has a costume a sidekick and an iconic silhouette, three elements that are extremely common amongst modern comic book heroes. His adveentures started small and gradually became either more outlandish (Battles with werewolves and magicians) or more personal and character building such as later books that deal with the characters dubious pastimes.
This film is not the Sherlock Holmes you may know from the various tv and cinema incarnations that have come before. Basil Rathbone this Holmes is not. He’s not a well to do gentleman. He is not a man respected by all around him and he certainly isn’t the hero character we all know. Instead this Holmes has been given the Guy Ritchie East End hard man treatment. He’s a disorderly mess of a man with an extreme set of gifts. This is actually quite an accurate reinterpretation of the character from the books. Though never to these extremes this is a more in your face and modernised look at the character. He’s incredibly smart, able to deduce a persons pass in an instant. A capable fighter that approaches fights with a mathematical and clinical precision. Most of all he is a messy, near unlikable rogue of a man. This isn’t so far removed from the books either. In the books Holmes’ home at 221b Bakers Street was a complete wreck of papers, books and experiments, all of which, according to Holmes were in their proper place. This film interpretation makes that element a more visual part of his character trait. It pours through ever part of Downey Jr’s performance and, to be honest, it makes him an interesting character to view. You’re constantly intrigued by just how this scruffy mess of a man is capable of the extraordinary acts he pulls off with ease.
Watson is also given a little of a modernised make over. He’s more prone to fisticuffs and a lot less tolerant of Holmes more undesirable characteristics. His relationship to mes is a core element of the films plot as he feels as though in order to move on with his life with his oncoming marriage he must create distance between himself and Holmes. Not an easy task when, as Holmes notes, Watson is addicted to the danger and adventure that comes with the territory of being best friend to the worlds greatest detective. The chemistry between Jude Law’s Watson and Downey Jr’s Holmes creates some fun moments of bickering and buddy cop camaraderie olde English style. Without this relationship working the film would likely struggle. Well it does work and the film moves along swimmingly because of it.
In the villain role is Mark Strong, who seems to be getting typecast in this sort of role. He plays the Magician Blackwood who along with ritual sacrifice and faking his on death has designs on controlling the world through fear of his power. He also put across throughout the film as being a challenge for Holmes to figure out. Along the progression of the films there are a lad of tiny little clues to answer just how Blackwood has pulled off what he has and, as you’d expect, Holmes takes the time to explain the logic behind the trickery for you. Some clues are clearly on display and others will lead you to consider watching the film again to see if you can spot the slight of hand used by the director to misdirect you from what Holmes had seen. These clues are a lot of the fun of the film. They’re pretty clever and complexly planned out weaving throughout the story and locations like an intricate tapestry of breadcrumb trails.
Now I’m not a major fan of Guy Ritchie’s directorial style which seems to be akin to treason in the UK these days. That said he restrains some of his more stylistic approaches to camera placement and imagery allowing for a film that’s short, more or less, in a straight forward action movie style. That’s not to say his signature isn’t all over the film. Like I said before this is very much the modernised East End hardman approach to Sherlock Holmes. He even takes part in a bit of bare knuckle fighting to blow off steam at one point. Speaking of which, twice in the early stages of the film there is a moment where we hear and see Holmes planning out just how he’s going to take down his opponent. This is a good way of showing the audience how his mind works. Only problem is it is never used again. Later in the film he faces a giant Frenchman portrayed by Robert Maillet (A man some of you may know as Kurrgan from late 90s WWF). Now this methodology to Holmes fighting could have been used here to great effect, but it is not. It could also have been used to show he was fighting someone as good as him by having his attacks not work as he planned. it’s a bit of a missed chance but not a big deal.
If this film has any cinematic comparative it would be to 1999s Plunkett and Macleane. They share a lot in common with their modernised approach to a England that’s long passed. While Sherlock Holmes may not go quite as far as that film does it’s approach does make it very accessible for overseas markets and… lets just say the less mentally gifted in the audience. That’s not to say it’s dumbed down too much, your brain will be ticking over thanks to the aforementioned string of clues. It’s just a simpler more visual approach to the sort of story that could have been played as a straight laced thriller. I’d imagine the coming sequel (subtitled A Game Of Shadows and due for release this Winter) will have a lot more of Guy Ritchie’s trademarks and will likely be a much larger scale film. Ritchie’s clearly playing it safe here knowing that from time to time he will not hit gold and that this series has a lot of money riding on it. It’s the smart approach to be honest. He doesn’t want another flop in the form of Revolver on his hands.
Effects wise the film uses an obscene amount of digital trickery to make London look like the London of the Victorian era. Mostly it’s pretty invisible to the viewer but there are a few background plates that look like a series of special effects sewn together. There’s also some pretty dodgy CGI during a action sequence in a London dock. The sets are very good though. Full of tiny details, grime and a real lived in quality that many set designers forget to include. If it wasn’t for this Holmes’ non-conventional look you’d think these were images ripped straight from the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Mark Strong especially fits the bill as Blackwood in both presence and performance.
Overall this is a very enjoyable film that I doubt many people would take issue with. It may be a different presentation of Homes but it’s one that’s so coherently presented that it all works quite well. That’s the key to a reimagining (Hate that word) such as this. If one changed element feels too out of place within the rest of the world presented it would stick out like a sore thumb. If Holmes had had the bare knuckle fight scene whilst being presented as he was in the Basil Rathbone days this film would not have worked at all. Whilst I wouldn’t say it’s the most gripping and amazing action film I’ve seen recently it is certainly and enjoyable one that I would say sits comfortably in what I would consider the standard that should be set for this sort of film. I look forward to seeing the sequel at the end of the year and, at the end of the day, is that not the purpose of an opening installment of a new franchise?