by D.W. Lundberg

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up? The great thing about the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is just how much that question is left open to interpretation. Recounted in the first-person by the estimable Dr. John H. Watson, M.D., Holmes's flatmate and partner in (solving) crime, it is next to impossible to tell what the world's "first consulting detective" might be thinking at any given moment; indeed, Watson can only stand back and observe, in awe and wonderment, as that great and fevered brain goes on about its business. If we're lucky, Holmes might even key us in on his investigative process - how, for example, he is able to deduce (correctly) a killer's age simply by the gait in his footprints. More often than not, though, we're left to ponder the evidence all on our own - not just about the mystery at hand, but also about this strange, enigmatic cipher at its center.

This is no doubt why readers have been so enthralled by Holmes's adventures over the years. Doyle published the first, A Study In Scarlet, in 1887's Beeton's Christmas Annual, and even now - four novels and 56 short stories later - we have only pieces of the character's true psychological makeup. What we do know is mostly limited to the external: Watson, upon their first meeting, describes Holmes as well over six feet tall, thin, with a "hawk-like nose" and "sharp[,] piercing" eyes. He is emotionless, distant, prone to fits of manic depression when his mind isn't busied on a case, and is a master of deductive reasoning. He will never miss a chance to remind you of this last important fact.

That's all well and good, but what about the man inside - his hopes, his dreams, his thoughts, his fears? Is there more to him than meets the eye? Or do his actions speak for themselves? Why is he so driven, so intensely focused, so difficult to identify with on a personal level? (Modern theorists attribute this behavior to Asperger's Syndrome.) He's been the subject of countless films, radio adaptations, literary spin-offs, TV series, even a Disney cartoon - each with their own personal take on the character, but sharing one common trait: Sherlock's obsessive love of the chase. And he's just as popular as ever. My, how we love a good mystery man.

In December 2009, Warner Bros. and director Guy Ritchie - he of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and once-married-to-Madonna fame - unveiled the latest incarnation of Doyle's signature sleuth, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson. One glance at the poster above and you know this won't be your father's Sherlock Holmes: For one thing, Downey's hair is unnaturally unkempt! And he's missing vital parts of his iconic attire! Like, where's the pipe? The Inverness overcoat? The patented deerstalker cap? Why, with those sparkling eyes and self-satisfied grin, this guy looks more like a merry prankster, not the introspective, straight-arrow superhero we all know and love. Even the gaze on Watson/Law's face seems like a come-on - as if to say, "You think you're ready for this?"

I kid, of course. Read any review for this "new and improved" Sherlock Holmes, and you'll find they complain about the exact same thing - the rollicking action sequences, the slow-motion camera shots, and all the many ways in general that Ritchie, Downey and company managed to "radicalize" Doyle's sacred text. Even the great Roger Ebert comes off like one of the herd, when he writes (in an otherwise favorable review) that "Holmes tosses aside the deerstalker hat and meerschaum calabash" - as if the accessories defined the man.

Most critics, in fact, seem less influenced by Doyle than by other, composite versions of the character. Would it surprise them to learn that Doyle never overtly states that Holmes wears the famous deerstalker? He does write - once - that Holmes sports an "ear-flapped travelling cap" in "The Adventure Of Silver Blaze," published in 1892. (The cap and coat would later become associated with the character through illustrations by Sidney Paget; while both the curved pipe and Holmes's immortal phrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson" were introduced by stage actor William Gillette.) Indeed, our collective perception of Holmes most likely stems from this image - of Basil Rathbone in 1939's Hound Of The Baskervilles, plus 13 follow- up film adaptations co-starring Nigel Bruce as a bumbling Dr. Watson.

In all fairness, Ritchie's Sherlock does actually differ from Doyle's on a couple of fronts. First, Robert Downey Jr. is only 5'8" - and hardly "hawk-nosed." Second, the new movie opens at the tail end of a case, with Holmes and Watson already in motion, rather than the usual way each story began, with the detective and his doctor friend resting comfortably at their 221B Baker Street flat. And... that's about it. Everything else - the bouts of manic depression ("My mind rebels at stagnation," Holmes/Downey says, echoing a line from The Sign Of The Four), the organized chaos of Holmes's living quarters (including, but not limited to, Queen Victoria's initials bullet-pocked into a side wall), his formidable fighting skills (in retrospect, of course this is how the man would fight - pre-planning each individual move before landing a single real-time blow to his opponent), even the habitual cocaine use (though Ritchie's film refrains from showing us the needle) - comes, either directly or indirectly, from Doyle himself.

Hot off his career-revitalizing success as Mr. Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. injects his Sherlock Holmes with the same playful, improvisational wit he brought to Iron Man - he makes a previously impenetrable character personable. Watching him, you can see his brain working even when he's standing still, and when he shares scenes with other characters he fidgets restlessly, as if bored with the conversations he's already mapped out in his head.

He finds the ideal foil in Jude Law's dapper, heroic Dr. Watson, who also comes closer in spirit to the books than anyone cares to realize. (Though Doyle describes Watson fairly early on as "thin as a lath and as brown as a nut," and Paget drew the character in much the same fashion, that didn't stop TIME magazine critic Mary Pols from reporting that "Law is too pretty to play Watson" - meaning ... what, exactly? That every version of the good doctor should be as fuddy-duddy as Nigel Bruce's?)

Perhaps unintentionally, Doyle helped to usher in the modern Buddy Cop Comedy when he penned ­Scarlet­ over a century ago - that of the straight man and the eccentric, partnered together to solve crimes. But the screenplay by Lionel Wigram, Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg isn't content to leave it at that. Watson becomes less of a spectator this time and more of an active, willing participant, and damned if Law doesn't relish the part (just check out the way he smacks his lips during an early fight sequence, before tussling with a couple of bad guys). Holmes's sense of adventure entices Watson, and vice versa - Watson's logic and cool-headedness grounds Holmes, makes him human. And despite the movie's best efforts to saddle them both with heterosexual pursuits – Holmes with the enigmatic Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and Watson with fiancée Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) - it's the men who spend the entire two-hour running time squabbling like an old married couple.

About the only point not worth defending is the plot, which plays like a convoluted mishmash of James Bond and Jack the Ripper conspiracy thriller. Ritchie takes full advantage of all the mega-budget talent at his disposal - locations teeming with period extras, a generous CGI assist to re-create fog-bound Victorian London, cinematography by Oscar-winner Phillipe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It), quirky/propulsive Hans Zimmer score – but at what cost? It sometimes amounts to sensory overload, when Doyle's tried-and-true murder-mystery format might have been enough.

Audiences really seemed to like it, though. Sherlock Holmes opened worldwide on Christmas Day, 2009, and wound up pulling in an impressive $524 million in theaters by the end of its run. It opened in second place to James Cameron's Avatar in the United States, but still managed to become one of the highest-grossing films in U.S. history (with $209 million in U.S. ticket sales) never to reach number one at the box office. That's no small feat. It made the possibility of a sequel not just inevitable, but elementary.


The Original: Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009)

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, James Fox

Plot: A serial murderer rises from the dead in 1891 Victorian London, much to the chagrin of Sherlock Holmes, the world's greatest consulting detective. Meanwhile, the impending marriage of Dr. Watson, Holmes's best friend and flatmate, threatens to tear the duo apart.

How It Set The Tone: Warner Bros. and director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels) bring us the umpteenth screen incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary super-sleuth, updated with rollicking action, super slow-motion camera tricks, and all the spectacle a big-budget studio tentpole can buy. Despite many critics' claims to the contrary, this Sherlock actually comes closer to the original stories, without a deerstalker cap or "Elementary, my dear Watson" in sight (my apologies to Basil Rathbone). Robert Downey Jr. eases comfortably into Holmes's brilliant, sometimes manic, larger-than-life persona (as usual, it's like Downey's mouth is always playing catch-up with his brain) and he's matched by an atypically dapper and mischievous Jude Law, whose put-upon Dr. Watson is treated less like a spectator and more like a kindred spirit this time out. The CGI-assisted Victorian London is appropriately grimy and fog-bound, and Hans Zimmer's propulsive score (performed by accordion, banjo, and maritime piano) adds to the movie's overall quirkiness. Better still, it ends on a cliffhanger, hinting at nefarious arch-villains to come. Bring on the sequel!

Room For Improvement: Conan Doyle's entire Holmes- ian oeuvre is clipped, concise and to the point - and reads like absolute gangbusters. Ritchie and his screenwriters, on the other hand, couldn't be bothered with anything so simple as a traditional murder-mystery plot, so they top-load the movie with incident - conspiracies, secret societies, fights with 6'11" henchmen, and enough supernatural hoo-ha to mystify even the most attentive of viewers. The movie gets so overstuffed that you sort of give up on it and wait for the great detective to step in and explain the entire plot - which he does, in a single, breathless monologue (a move also very much in keeping with the original stories). Downey's Sherlock is so ahead of everyone else, as a matter of fact, that much of the suspense is drained from the proceedings. Come to think of it, a bolder, badder bad guy might have been welcome, too.

Grade: B

Sequel: Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows (Guy Ritchie, 2011)

Returning Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly, Eddie Marsan

New Cast: Jared Harris, Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry, Paul Anderson

Plot: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson run afoul of Professor James Moriarty, a criminal mastermind plotting terrorist attacks for war profiteering purposes.

How It Compares: It looks the same, it even sounds the same - so how come this fast-tracked sequel to 2009's blockbuster hit feels like such an improvement? For one thing, it's got a better villain: With his ginger hair and sharp, jutting chin (he could be Conan O'Brien's older, sinister uncle), Jared Harris may seem like an odd fit for Professor Moriarty at first. But then when he speaks - or worse, threatens - in that soft, insinuating voice of his (it's actually more like a snake's hiss), you can tell he means business. The character has always held a particular fascination for fans, and Harris doesn't disappoint; his tête-à-tête confrontations with Downey are so good, they class up the rest of the movie almost by default. Even Guy Ritchie's patented fast motion/slow motion flourishes take a back seat to the plot (credited to Kieran and Michele Mulroney), which sticks to a fairly simple structure (Holmes and Watson investigate clues, followed by inevitable face-off with Moriarty, followed by elaborate action/chase sequence and moment of introspection, and repeat) and tosses in references to "Adventure Of The Empty House" and "The Final Problem" to boot. New cast members Noomi "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" Rapace and Stephen Fry get the short-shrift, but even non-purists should be thrilled to see the Holmes/Watson bromance cranked up to 11: Holmes actually dresses in drag and says, "Lie down with me, Watson!" at one point (don't ask), and then later, they even share a ballroom waltz together! Arthur Conan Doyle must be spinning in his grave...

Grade: B+

More To Come?: Warner Bros. announced last October that screenwriter Drew Pearce has been tapped for Sherlock Holmes 3. The action, this time, will reportedly be shifted to the U.S.


Part 5 of my "Buddy Cop" retrospective. For previous parts, click here, here, here and here. For all non-Buddy Franchise Face-Offs, click here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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