They’re saying the new Sherlock Holmes is no good because Guy Ritchie’s turned him into an action star. Knowing this going into it, it’s quite easy to brush off such claims and the dubious axioms on which they precariously rest. It takes very little education about Sherlock Holmes lore to learn that there has hardly been an adaptation of the famous Arthur Conan Doyle detective that hasn’t run somewhat against the literary knight’s original conception of him. So, pshaw to the naysayers, right off. On another point, if anyone thought that Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of such a character would be anything other than non-Doyle, s/he wasn’t doing the proper homework. Haven’t yet seen Ritchie’s Revolver or RocknRolla (though they’re both here on the shelf), but Lock Stock and Snatch are enough to give an idea of what Ritchie’s shtick probably is. We should no more have expected Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman to be “faithful.” It wasn’t, and everyone (except Jack Nicholson and various academics) loved Nolan for it. Incidentally, Isn’t Ritchie basically the British Christopher Nolan? They both got started doing fairly flashy “indie” films that were bound to get enough attention for larger funding for subsequent projects (which they did), and now each of them seems to have taken under his belt a popular franchise.
As for the action component, Holmes is here presented as an intellectual fighter, one who knows how to defeat one’s enemies physically through mentally outwitting them and knowing in advance what moves they will make. This is spelled out pretty overtly, using some super-slow-mo sequences in which the audience previews what will occur in Holmes’ mind’s eye before we get to see the real event occur. It always happens exactly the way Holmes plans for it to happen; as enjoyable as these sequences were, one wonders if they aren’t a little too overt – will they offer anything new on repeat viewings?
Speaking of trans-Atlantic correlations, is Robert Downey, Jr. to Sherlock Holmes what Hugh Laurie is to Greg House? Each actor crossed the pond to play an genius at the top of his game who is socially and hygienically near the bottom in a screen production. The show House, M.D. might be superior to this film, however, regarding the human character of the protagonist. While House is consistently shown to be master of his domain, he is also seriously disturbed, and his problems just as consistently get in the way of him smoothly carrying out what he does best. In the case of Holmes, however, his rough-around-the-edges demeanor is more comical than anything else. Downey’s performance is captivating and entertaining, but little if any humanity is shown. The audience is encouraged to swoon over Holmes’ genius rather than relate to what lies beneath it. Is this a flaw? Not necessarily. Having only listened to one of the Doyle stories on audiobook, it would seem that Holmes’ humanity was never the intention of the stories, and Ritchie doesn’t particularly imply that it was his intention. However, the inclusion of Holmes’ lost love, his deep need for companionship (Watson), and a more supernatural element than his scientific mind is accustomed to pondering combine to create at least the opportunity for a more multifaceted character, to say nothing of the nature of cinema.
Was told prior to watching the film that ink has already been spilt over the homoerotic undertones here between Holmes and Watson. Now having seen it, duh; less “undertones,” more “overtones.” The film makes no secret of these moments, really joking about them a lot more than implying any serious substance to them. It seems unlikely that any study would take time to examine this component of the film, since the film quickly acknowledges it (almost in order to get it out of the way) and doesn’t undergird it with much complexity. Holmes and Watson can’t get enough of each other, but they still want their women in a real way.
More interesting than that is the scientific-spiritual, or natural-supernatural aspect. Above Holmes as an action star jumping out of windows, this feature appeared more troublesome at the outset. It seemed like the equivalent of Hollywood taking the Mission:Impossible TV show in its first movie and killing off the entire crew except for Ethan Hunt. (There is another film adaptation that presently escapes me in which the entire spirit of the source material is compromised for the purpose of creating an interesting narrative.) Ritchie certainly implied this in the marketing for Sherlock Holmes, and most of the film implies that this is what’s going on; there is something otherwordly afoot in the investigation, something that is beyond Holmes’ capacity to ascertain. The films The Prestige (by Nolan, again) and The Illusionist both revolved around magic and magicians, and both to varying degrees copped out by giving scientific explanations for their apparently supernatural content. (The Prestige did this to a much lesser degree than The Illusionist.) In Sherlock Holmes, however, the scientific explanations that finally are offered for all the hocus pocus are not “cop-outs” but quite the opposite, finally and faithfully remaining true to the character of Holmes. If he were to have fought off the resurrected demon-man in a brawl using trickery from an ancient book, this would not have been Holmes, and the audience would have known that the scientific Holmes would not have been the best suited for the job. The implication of Holmes as executioner, however, does seem odd and unfaithful. The cinematography attempts to negotiate the film’s last death as out of Holmes’ hands, but one can’t quite get over his calm as the villain meets his end while Holmes unfolds exactly how it all went down.