Movies – “Sherlock Holmes” Is A Welcome Surprise

I grew up with Sherlock Holmes. My dad wrote a heavily-researched Sherlockian pastiche (“Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula”; you should read it, you can buy it from Amazon), I grew up attending Sherlock Holmes fan club meetings, I read the stories, I watched the Jeremy Brett movies…suffice to say I’m a pretty big Holmes fan, one of three things that seems to throw people whenever I discuss my interests (the other two being my unabashed love of Godzilla and a powerful affection for the Commedia. I’m both an annoying fanboy AND an overeducated snob!)

And to be honest, “Sherlock Holmes” looked fun but also like it was using the character as, at best, a pretext for Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. to riff and punch their way through Victorian-era London. The presence of Guy Ritchie didn’t help; he’s a talented filmmaker but he doesn’t exactly scream “period piece”. So I reconciled myself to Hollywood putting out a big-budget movie using a public domain character because it had audience recognition and was cheaper. And honestly there have been far worse filmic abuses of Holmes. Whether it’s Matt Frewer’s crack-addict spasming about or Basil Rathbone performing a miserable and silly script through gritted teeth, there’s a lot more bad Holmes than good Holmes (notable exception: the superb “Seven Percent Solution”, written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, who’d go on to write and direct one of the greatest SF thrillers ever, “Star Trek II”).

Instead I got one of the best adaptations of Holmes on film.

Before I go into the glowing praise, I should express a few criticisms. The main villain, Lord Blackwood, just doesn’t work as a threat: you’re onto the guy and what he’s up to right from the start. It doesn’t help that how Blackwood pulls off his stunts is essentially totally uninteresting. Combine this with Mark Strong underplaying the role (to be fair, it’s a good decision, but it doesn’t do the character any favors) and the lack of stakes and it feels less like Holmes saving the British empire and more like Holmes beating up David Blaine.

Which come to think of it, an hour and a half of Robert Downey Jr. kicking the crap out of Blaine would be worth eight bucks in of itself. But anyway.

I also dislike the fistfight gag, wherein Sherlock considers his strategy for beating the crap out of thugs, being presented not once but twice. Basically, we see the fight laid out and then we see it again, with the exact same camera angles. It IS a great way to present Holmes’ analytical mind, but jeez, guys.

But these are nitpicks in light of what works.

First and foremost, this movie is how you do fanservice without losing your wider audience. The movie is crammed to the gills with nods to the original story without ever highlighting them. For example, Jude Law’s Watson has a subtle limp which the movie never brings up, but it’s a nice nod to the canon.

Secondly, everyone is on their game here. Ritchie wisely keeps his style for his insights into Holmes’ mind, and it makes the most sense to apply it there: Holmes’ frame of mind is a never-ending rush of details. Downey and Law play off each other quite well, and Rachel McAdams makes a great Irene Adler. It also has to be said that all three do a pretty good job putting fist to face, making this a pretty fun action movie to watch. Similarly, Downey shows a real facility and even joy in the scenes showing Holmes figuring something out or improvising a solution at the last minute, arguably some of the best parts in the movie.

Thirdly, there’s the score. I’m absolutely boggled that this is Hans Zimmer. Hans Zimmer, of all people! This is the guy who gives Alan Silvestri a run for his money on the cheese factor of his scores. Just like Slivestri occasionally turns around and offers us something utterly unique (exhibit A: his jazzy and understated score for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”), Zimmer in turn offers up a mixture of traditional Victorian-era tunes and a score that’s free of the usual action movie instrumentation.

“Sherlock Holmes” is, in the end, little more than an appetizer for the second movie. But it’s an incredibly delicious one, and I’m looking forward to the next course.

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