Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

Interestingly, last night (24 hours after seeing Avatar) I had a great time watching Guy Ritchie (Snatch) work Sherlock Holmes over with his particular brand of Britstosterone-fueled filmmaking. In what seems to be the emerging pattern among reboots these days, Ritchie drops in on Holmes (Robert Downey) somewhat early in his career, before he has met the shadowy figure in the fringes of the movie who will ultimately become his archenemy. And rather than modify Holmes and sidekick Watson (Jude Law) to fit into his style of protagonists, Ritchie is able to stay somewhat faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle's mythos, peppering the film with details from his novels while melding his sensibility into a London that is possibly one of the most historically accurate to ever serve as a backdrop for a cinematic Holmes adventure.

Yes, it's a grungier Holmes than we're used to seeing, one that could easily fit into the lineup with any of the other underworld characters from Ritchie's filmography yet still true to Doyle's depiction of the character. Downey has just the right flair for theatricality to embody the Holmes we're familiar with. The deductive reasoning, the dry wit, the lightning fast reflexes both mental and otherwise, are faithfully preserved. The one thing Downey brings to the mix which may shock some who only know the character from the movies is a physicality that has often been referred to in the novels. Holmes could have been a prize-fighter according to Doyle's novels, and Downey, looking leaner and sleeker than he ever has before (an allusion to Holmes' unspoken—at least in this movie—drug addiction?) brings the attitude of a bare-knuckle brawler and the grace and agility of a martial artist into the film's multitude of action scenes. This, in fact, is an action movie, but it will probably be one of the smartest and most historically accurate ones you'll see for a long time.

If there are any drawbacks they lie in the predictability of what is basically a traditional detective story/action-adventure tale. There's seldom any question that Holmes will save the day, that our heroes' lives are in danger, or that we won't figure out the villain, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), and his agenda. And Rachel McAdams is sorely miscast as the one woman Holmes has ever found formidable. She seems like a young schoolgirl next to these men. But Ritchie makes up for this by pumping some adrenaline into the story—the film moves like a juggernaut, quick, muscular and unstoppable—and giving the movie a real sense of place and time that make every scene worth exploring if only for the simple pleasure of soaking in the ambience. Ritchie also gets points for avoiding the expository origin story that often plagues reboots of this nature. Instead he introduces us to Holmes and Watson—virtual equals in the way their strengths complement each other—in what seems like mid-career.

The most interesting performance is Law's as Holmes' faithful aide, Dr. Watson. Often presented as somewhat of a bumbler in other movies (particularly when played by Nigel Bruce in the forties), Law imbues Watson with dignity and self-respect, reminding you always that this man's intellectual stature must be of some note in order to even keep up with the arrogant genius that is Holmes. Details about Watson usually reserved solely for Doyle's stories come to the forefront in Ritchie's film: his distinguished military service in Afghanistan; his medical acumen; and his self-deprecating habit of acknowledging his limitations in the presence of his intellectually superior friend. There's even a subplot that touches on the closeness of the two men, with Holmes experiencing a bit of jealousy at the thought of Watson's impending marriage to a governess (a wonderful excuse to pass some time with the underrated Kelly Reilly).

Sherlock Holmes is hardly as ambitious as Cameron's Avatar,a film that may overshadow its opening at the box office this weekend. But Holmes succeeds on its own merits in some ways Avatar fails to. It gives us a fresh take on a favorite literary character, which in years to come, may give this film some stronger footing than its box office rival.

Sherlock Holmes opens in theaters on Christmas Day.


Unknown said...

Good review! The trailers for this film really have me intrigued and the chemistry between Downey and Law looks good. Can't wait!

Judy said...

Great review - I enjoyed this film and agree with you that it feels true to the essence of the character of Holmes despite the updating and action movie aspects. I also like your point about the way Watson is re-imagined from the rather bumbling portrayals in some earlier adaptations, though it was Downey who really had me watching every minute. The interaction between him and Law was great. Although the drug addiction went unexplored, I thought a tendency that way was suggested - he seemed to have a hangover in one scene, with a mention by Mrs Hudson of him having "enough poison in him already". Presumably alcohol, but still...

Richard Bellamy said...

Nice observations here. I enjoyed some of the same elements - I loved Downey Jr.'s performance and this new interpretation of Holmes, and I liked the fact that he could knock his adversaries down, but there were too many fist fights and they were too long. I would have preferred less fighting and more deductive reasoning of clues that don't get explained until the end - when it doesn't really matter.

Along with Downey's performance, the sense of time and place - so richly portrayed - was a major strength here.

Strangely, the previews don't reveal what the film is really like - which was actually a pleasant surprise. From the previews, I expected something lighter and less historically evocative - like the Banderas Zorro movies. A few minutes into the film, I was in a totally different world: dark, grungy, fascinating. I'm glad the movie didn't turn out to be like the previews.

Tony Dayoub said...


I've learned over the last few days that those who criticize the movie for not capturing the essence of Holmes know only the pop culture depictions of the character, since many details from ACD's original novels are peppered throughout the film.


Yeah, maybe the fight scenes take precedence over the deductive work, but it is a Guy Ritchie movie. I admired how he honored the essence of Holmes while maintaining the auteurial flavor of his own work.

I think the best direction for this to go in, should this become a franchise, would be to assign a distinctive auteur to each sequel. Holmes is such an iconic character, and the rest of his world is such a tabula rasa, that you could give each director the requirement that they preserve the character but everything else is fair game to tweak as they want. Sort of what they've attempted to do with the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series , but haven't quite succeeded at accomplishing.

Ryan McNeil said...

reminding you always that this man's intellectual stature must be of some note in order to even keep up with the arrogant genius that is Holmes...

Very well said! For much of the movie, I was starting to get the impression that it was more of Watson's show, and that Holmes was only there to steal his thunder. I really loved both Downey and Law in these roles, and thought they had fantastic chemistry together.

My biggest qualm was only that the exposition of how Holmes was putting the case together was held back a tad too long...the big explanation at the end sorta made the film feel a bit like CSI, no?

(BTW - In case you're interested, I finally posted my review today)

Tony Dayoub said...

"My biggest qualm was only that the exposition of how Holmes was putting the case together was held back a tad too long...the big explanation at the end sorta made the film feel a bit like CSI, no?"

You know, that didn't bother me too much. It seemed characteristic of what one expects from a Holmes story. But more importantly, the weak case was less of the attraction in this movie than the heavy focus on character and setting that really made the film so charming.