Comfortable and Furious

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

This cluttered tale has reaped the benefit of low expectations; it was passable as far as entertainment goes, leagues ahead of what I was expecting given Guy Ritchie’s last two projects and a busily retarded trailer. A clusterfuck of biblical proportions averted, I relaxed into what was an agreeably mediocre farce, and superior to shoveling the driveway or suffering through the eightieth viewing of Elmo’s Potty Training Time. That being said, your time would be better spent leafing through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories regarding Holmes and enjoying them for what they were: an excuse to wow the reader with rather clever deductive exercises and ingenious little tricks and traps.

The character of Sherlock Holmes was never particularly deep; though an emotional mess and inclined to obsessive behaviors when not occupied by puzzles, he was a blank wall off which such puzzles bounced in ways reflecting the author’s wit. Watson was always more developed due to his flaws and relative normalcy which put his friend in sharp relief. Really, though, one could give a toss about the characters unless they were relating the way in which seemingly insignificant clues could be used to tease apart any number of mental enigmas. In this respect, the film adaptation of the adventures of the detective gets it wrong entirely, as the puzzles themselves are merely mortar to help smooth together the action set pieces. Rather than clever, the tricks are contrived enough to make Wile E. Coyote cock an eyebrow in bewilderment. Sherlock Holmes is here to fuck shit up… and maybe solve a mystery if time permits.

At the beginning of the story, Sherlock Holmes and his gay pal Watson are in pursuit of a Satanic serial killer, and they seem to be a complete work. By this, I mean they are at the peak of their powers; Watson is fussy and worried (in addition to being a former soldier) and Holmes knows everything about everything. There is no arc to speak of for these guys, apart from their self-denial. Watson is engaged to be married, which irks Holmes to no end. Now, this could be the basis of a homoerotic subtext, except they spend so much time bickering like jilted lovers that it is self-conscious and way out of any theoretical closet. Homoeroticism is only fun in the cinema when it is not intentional. But that is Ritchie for you – subtle as a meteorite. So, they apprehend their quarry, one Lord Blackwood, who conceals his mastery of chemistry and engineering with black magic rituals to inspire fear in his subjects and adversaries. He is caught, hung, and rises from the dead to continue his aspirations to… well, rule the world I think.

I doubt even the director knows what the master plan is, but it has something to do with having power and crushing his enemies mwahahaha. There are many improbable traps and red herrings, and a femme fatale in Rachel McAdams, who is stunning in the way she reads lines like a recovering stroke victim. There is a secondary villain whose importance only becomes clear at the end as Sherlock Holmes is set up for a quickie sequel. Overall, it is an attempt at a smart action film with some working knowledge of the gentleman from 221B Baker Street (all reviews are legally required to contain this address). The movie is not as clever as it would suppose, with any loose ends tied together with random technobabble used as clues that are elementary, dear reader. Or would be if they made any sense. Hero and villain must anticipate the moves of their enemies to a ridiculous extent – one such target walks through a fountain of flammable liquid, Holmes deducing its existence and the victim’s assumption that it was raining. Yes, an isolated rain of chemicals on an otherwise dry evening. Damned London weather. You sort of learn to stop rolling your eyes and just take it all in, though a flask of Bowmore was of considerable aid.

It is not a bad film if you think very little and pay minimal attention to detail, a ethos that would do Sherlock proud. The action is not bad, but repetitive since Victorian London had only so many possible locations for fistfights and very few options for melee weapons. Still, the actors do manage to lose themselves in some clouds of CGI and one (admittedly) impressive view of London Bridge that is still under construction. Guy Ritchie’s overly busy direction keeps things moving, but more importantly keeps the audience perpetually distracted. Robert Downey Jr. is perfect – not as Holmes, but as a star in a Guy Ritchie movie.

He grows more twitchy each film, and here is so self-consciously mannered that he ceases to exist as a film character and becomes the Annoying Thinking Man’s Action Star. Hopefully the producer of Iron Man 2 had some Thorazine on hand. Jude Law acquits himself as Dr. Watson, and it is in the dialogue that Sherlock Holmes is most tolerable. It was to no end of annoyance that this was given short shrift, not to mention the way deduction occurred almost grudgingly before the next action scene commenced. The legendary detective spent more time as a pit fighter than poring over books, but perhaps this is nitpicking. I was really expecting to hate this movie considering the ads, but I found myself lulled into apathetic contentment with the occasional witty remark or interesting moment to break the fog.

Which brings me to the one point that I could glean from a blah movie that has generated the necessarily blah review: Sherlock Holmes, not Avatar, is the future of filmmaking. Avatar was too obnoxious with its self-importance and too expensive with its technology. Maybe the animation will become cheaper, but filming people will always be the economical choice. Holmes is the perfect blend of real people and sets and what is evidently a CGI-laden backdrop that plants you in 1880s London by way of Narnia. Fake looking, but agreeably so. Self-aware and never too astute to alienate a potentially dim audience, while bringing the smashy-smashy and goofy plot twists. Keep it bubbly and busy, and you will never be accused of insulting the audience. Eventually Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers will suffer considerable backlash, while relatively adequate fare like this will continue sailing with full audiences and pleased critics. Maybe not now, but someday this will be seen as the equinox; the idea of a smart film will have changed. I do not know if this is for the better, but with a relentlessly bleak horizon, I am willing to look for any sort of silver lining I can.