The morning "Sherlock Holmes", the new film from director Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the famous detective, was released; I read a pretty scathing review in the local hometown paper. The next night, I went to see the movie and actually enjoyed most of the experience. It isn't a great film, but it is fun.
If you are familiar with any of Guy Ritchie's previous works, "Sherlock Holmes" will look familiar. Known for rough and tumble films featuring British gangsters and con men, not necessarily very smart men, who hold terrific grudges against one another, Ritchie's films are violent and excessive, but fun. They are almost fun because of the excessive violence. Ritchie is one of the first directors to popularize a filmmaking technique using stop motion and bullet action; someone throws a punch, the camera follows right behind the fist and at the moment of contact, the camera slows down and we see a point of view of the impact. As soon as the punch lands, the camera speeds up again, usually, even faster than before. This type of camera work is most commonly done with bullets shooting out of guns, the camera stopping just as the bullet passes the camera and we can see the trajectory. Normally, I hate it when a filmmaker uses a technique to excess because all it does is call attention to the filmmaker, taking us out of the story. But in the case of Ritchie, each of his films is so excessive, so over the top, he almost seems to be shouting his glee that he is able to make a new film. This sort of unheralded joy helps me overlook a lot.
When I first heard about "Sherlock Holmes", I was more than a little surprised Ritchie was at the helm. Generally his films are low budget independent features unraveling tales about the dark underside of London. Very little thinking is usually done because everyone is so busy trying to kill one another. Sherlock Holmes is character with a great mind, a person who spends a lot of time thinking, working problems through. He isn't a man prone to fist fights and explosions. The two don't mix.
Then, as the trailers began to invade the multiplex, I saw that Richie's version of "Holmes" could work. A fist fight features prominently, as do explosions, but it seemed to me that Robert Downey Jr. & Jude Law were the perfect actors to play a modern interpretation of Holmes and Watson.
Other people in my family weren't so willing to go along for the ride, so I had to wait a day to see the film.
Holmes and Watson (Downey Jr. & Law, respectively) are instrumental in the capture of Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a man who practices lack magic and is caught in the process of sacrificing another women. Months later, Watson is asked to be present at Blackwood's hanging. After Blackwood is hanged for his crimes, Watson checks the vital signs and verifies the man is dead. Soon, someone claims to have seen Blackwood rise from the grave and other people begin to see Blackwood also. Holmes and Watson are perplexed and set out to figure out how a man can rise from the dead. Along the way, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an old flame of Holmes, returns and complicates his life. Irene has a checkered past and Holmes can not decide if he can fully trust her. As they investigate, it appears that Blackwood has a device that may prove a threat to England and eventually, to America.
One thing I think we can safely say about Richie's films is story has never been of paramount importance to the director. His films often make no sense, but engage us anyway because of the colorful characters he creates. Their dialogue and the situations they get into are often hilarious, interesting and unusual. How they get to these points, I doubt even Richie could explain to you. It's a bit like taking the characters played by Travolta and Jackson in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and listening to the famous Quarter Pounder speech with none of the other story or subtext Tarantino created. It works, but only because Ritchie seems to have such glee in making the situations his characters get into all the more preposterous and unusual.
"Holmes" follows this same template. Downey Jr. is extremely engaging as Holmes. H9s Sherlock seems bored and fascinated at the same time by everything going on around him. Even when he is attempting to break up a relationship between Watson and his new fiancée, he is more amused by the woman's protestations and the glass of wine she throws in his face than anything else. He doesn't seem surprised by anything. He and Watson have a love-hate relationship but they know they will be forever for years to come.
Law is very good as Watson. Exasperated by Holmes meddling and interference, he also respects the man's knowledge and abilities. He doesn't even seem to be that annoyed when Holmes tries to break up his relationship with his new fiancée. He expects his friend to do something like this, so he isn't surprised. It is also nice to see Law play the 'muscles' of the team, something he doesn't do very often, if ever.
Strong is very good as Lord Blackwood. A recognizable character actor, he makes himself appear very mysterious and dangerous, a very suitable villain. He also recently appeared in "The Young Victoria" as an advisor to the future Queen's mother. When he enters a scene, his very visage makes him an imposing figure and more than a little ominous.
I was excited to see that Rachel McAdams was going to be in this film. But unfortunately, her character is still a bit of a mystery. She is supposed to be the long lost love of Holmes, a woman with a dubious past who jilted Holmes. Initially, she is mysterious and there are clues that she would be in jail if Holmes had revealed what he learned of her before. But she is meant to be a much more mysterious figure, someone who is working behind the scenes, maybe for the bad guys, maybe on behalf of Homes and Watson. This isn't handled well and leaves us feeling a bit unfulfilled.
There are many things done right in "Sherlock Holmes". Early on, Holmes is in a fistfight (Why? I doubt even Richie knows). Pitted against a man three times his size, he is game for the sport, but outmatched, so he has to figure out a way to best his opponent. Quickly, Richie cuts together a series of quick cuts illustrating how Holmes will take down the behemoth. Then, Holmes does it; each of the previous cuts a punctuation point in the new scene. These moments are very effective illustrations of the deductive reasoning that the detective is known for. Later, Richie switches it up a bit and uses this same technique to illustrate something Holmes has just done. These don't work as well.
Also interesting is a scene in which Holmes demonstrates his ability with disguise. But these interesting touches aren't done nearly enough and leave us wanting more.
As a major Hollywood studio produces this film, a famous producer, director and stars are all involved, a sequel is almost inevitable. Everyone involved seems to be clearly invested in this idea and the film ends with the appearance of a new character that is certain to feature prominently in future films.
I don't like most sequels. I don't even like the idea of most sequels. Most are far inferior to the original and only serve as a way for the people involved to get "sequel money". What do I like even less? A new film created with a sequel in mind, the ending leading into the second film. It just seems slightly arrogant. We know this film is going to be so successful that a sequel is a sure thing. In the case of "Sherlock Holmes", I think the sequel has the potential of that rare class, the sequel that is better than the original. I hope everyone involved will be able to relax a bit and let the story and characters become more complex and deep. More "Sherlock Holmes".