The Game’s Afoot: Sherlock Holmes

Guy Ritchie’s latest take on the Sherlock Holmes is an incredibly fun ride, but one that takes far more from Ritchie’s visual style and storytelling than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s. The end result is around seventy percent Guy Ritchie, ten percent Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack, ten percent Hugh Laurie’s Gregory House and the remaining 10 percent Conan Doyle. Despite that, Sherlock Holmes is an entertaining, exciting and over the top adventure that fits well within Ritchie’s canon of British gangster films.

I’ve been a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories for a couple of years now, after coming across Baker Street in London, and shortly thereafter picking up a collection of Holmes short stories at a Tottenham Court Road bookstore. I blew through the stories, both for the mysteries that Holmes picked apart with impeccable logic, as well as the character of Holmes, who’s interested me since those first readings. I’ve never gotten into the other films or other adaptations before, so this new film was a little worrisome until I heard that a) Guy Ritchie was at the director’s chair, and b) that Robert Downey Jr. was playing the titular character.

I absolutely loved Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, as well as Layer Cake (which falls well within the same genre) for their highly entertaining characters, grimy English underworld and fun plots. Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes easily falls within the same sort of world, and could easily be a precursor to the films set in the modern day, and indeed, has a story that both mixes fantasy and reality, but takes a dated story and places a modern-day take on how it’s conducted.

In this story, Holmes and Watson are pulled into a mystery that starts rather abruptly with a chase to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and continues with the supposed resurrection of a murderer, Lord Blackwood, that sets London into a panic. Holmes and Watson together follow his trail through the city, gathering clues and finding themselves at odds with the government, and at times, each other. Their journey through the city is an entertaining one, with Holmes picking up on small clues, which lead to somewhat larger ones. I have a couple specific issues with the plot, which builds and builds to a largely anti-climatic end that leads neatly to a likely sequel (and sure enough, looking at IMDB, there is a sequel listed), which brings me to my biggest complaint for the film: the entire movie feels built by committee. At points, there’s too much action, too many leaps of faith in Holmes’s logic, but mainly that the film feels caught between stories. The beginning picks up at the end of a chase, while the end drops off with a number of tantalizing hints of Dr. Moriarty. Even the Irene Adler, supposedly one of Holmes’s greater opponents, is largely reduced to a placement character who almost never demonstrates her wit and intelligence during the story, instead becoming a very dull lead for Holmes to follow along to other aspects of the story. In this regard, there was much to be desired.

Where the film ultimately succeeds, however, is with the characters Holmes and Watson. In this regard, I have a feeling that the film’s writers watched quite a bit of the TV show House, MD – a show that bears many similarities in story style and characters – because at points, there were enormous similarities in how the two interacted, one impulsively intelligent, the other, exasperated, following in tow, much like the House/Wilson relationship. I can’t help but wonder if Hugh Laurie was vetted for the film, and I can’t help but think that it would be an awesome experiment for the show to film a Sherlock Holmes episode. Downey and Law are fantastic as Holmes and Watson, and really sell the film as a pair.

Even then, the real credit goes to Downey Jr.’s Holmes, who was expertly crafted and executed in a very interesting fashion. If memory serves, an idea for the character was that he was somewhat autistic, and with Holmes’s brilliance comes his anti-social personality. This Holmes feels very much at points like the one in Conan Doyle’s stories, in the way that he interacts with people and solves his crimes.

Looking at this film in a conceptual manner, it becomes clear that Holmes is the perfect type of character for this sort of story, one where reason comes into conflict with belief, along with science comes into conflict with religion. At the center of this story is a supernatural figure, one who supposedly returns from the dead, intent on taking over Britain through the efforts of a secret society that wields black magic, which in turn throws London into panic, and through several demonstrations, has this society believing that he really can wield an awesome power. On the other side of the equation is Holmes, who uses his impecable logic and reasoning to problems to follow them to their end, dispelling much of the carefully constructed mythos that surrounds Blackwood has put together and saves the day.

In a way, despite the period that the film is set in, this film is a product of the modern era, not only in its production, but in its story as well. A look at any newspaper today will show this sort of conflict of faith vs. reason is commonplace, in US communities and in the global jihadist conflict that puts the Middle East and western styles of civilization into conflict. This film isn’t necessarily a commentary on the war on terror by any stretch of the imagination, but it does highlight an interesting point, and one that I think is highly relevant, that matters of faith aren’t necessarily what they seem at first glance. This is the case in Blackwood’s attempted rise to power with his own devices and manipulations, and it’s the same for any campaign that involves faith. In a sense, the film is about thinking over belief, a cause that I can heartily promote and believe in, no pun intended.

The bottom line for Sherlock Holmes is that it’s pure fun – there’s certainly plenty of action, a number of cool fight scenes, humor and some fantastic visuals, but it has a bit of intelligences lurking below the surface for anyone who knows where to look.

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2 thoughts on “The Game’s Afoot: Sherlock Holmes

    • Yep – the creator of the show has credited the books for inspiration, and it really shows. House, in a way, is the best adaptation, because it really captures the essence of Holmes. Look through the archives here, I thunk I’ve written about it before.

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