30 December 2009

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes


Sherlock Holmes
2009, 135mins, PG-13
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writer (s): Simon Kinberg, Anthony Peckham, Michael Robert Johnson, Lionel Wigram, Arthur Conan Doyle (characters)
Cast includes: Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Mark Strong, Rachel McAdams, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly
Release Date: 25th December 2009

I’m not a fan of Guy Ritchie and the gangsters and geezers nonsense on which he has built a cinematic career, so upon hearing that he would be directing an updated version of “Sherlock Holmes” one of the greatest literary icons of all times, I was definitely sceptical. The casting of Robert Downey Jr as the legendary sleuth seemed apt but Jude Law’s inclusion as his sidekick raised eyebrows and the first trailer looked overly action packed at the expense of story or intrigue. Now the film has arrived in theatres and enjoyed a profitable $65 million opening weekend, cementing the idea of further sequels and adventures for the updated detective. “Sherlock Holmes” feels like the opening of a series rather than an individual film, an enjoyable start, but one that feels incomplete and too open ended come its finale. Further films are welcome and this certainly marks Guy Ritchie’s most accessible picture to date but by the finish the sequel bating has become a chore rather than a punchy pleasure.

Proceedings start with a fairly hectic chase sequence in which Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his partner Dr. Watson (Jude Law) attain and capture the nefarious Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a politician who has been using black magic to commit a series of heinous and bloody murders. However before being sent to the noose Blackwood demands a final meeting with Holmes, in which he warns the legendary detective that worse is to follow. Following this ominous meeting Blackwood mysteriously appears to rise from the grave, frightening the entire City and continuing to kill in order to achieve his devious aims. Holmes and Watson quickly hit the case; despite the fact the latter is set to leave his current lifestyle in favour of marriage, much to the disdain of his brilliant companion. However when one of Holmes old flames Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) reappears with a query suspiciously linked to the Blackwood case, London’s greatest detective starts to ponder just how large a conspiracy he might have wandered into.

Guy Ritchie’s take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s magnificent literature is considerably more reliant on blockbusting set pieces and spectacle than the original texts, wrapping them in a credible but far from stunning mystery. Folks looking for a full blown helping of narrative sustenance will struggle with aspects of “Sherlock Holmes”, it’s a story filled with gothic imagery and lavish action scenes, yet in itself it feels light and frothy. The new case cooked up for this rebirth lacks the audacious complexity and skilled logicality of Conan Doyle’s very best, holding together on the promise that grander and more intrepid twists are to follow in future offerings. It’s cute and certainly watchable but this new screenplay won’t be the cause for much intellectual uproar within the diehard Holmes community.

Robert Downey Jr is fabulous as Holmes and whilst his jabbering occasionally borders on inaudible, his frantic energy and quick wit never cease to impress. It’s no secret that Downey is both a fine dramatist and a proficient comedian and he sells both of these assets into the equation as Holmes. He exudes the likable lunacy and pinpoint brilliance of the character, occasionally touching on his darker and more emotionally troubled side too. If a sequel comes to be the filmmakers ought to push harder at the edges of Holmes sanity but as an introductory session with Downey’s vision, this is more than ample. Jude Law is unusually solid as Watson and builds a strong comic chemistry with Downey; the British actor who is all too often a dull and lifeless presence actually acquits himself very neatly in “Sherlock Holmes”. His relationship with Kelly Reilly’s Mary takes up more time than I felt was necessary but it’s nothing in comparison to the muddled inclusion of McAdams Irene Adler. McAdams is a likable performer but why her character exists within the confines of this story is suspect, all she seems to do is provide an opening for a sequel and confirm to the audience that Holmes isn’t gay. Her character is simply a tool for marketing purposes and simpletons; her performance is as such practically irrelevant. Hamming it up as the villainous Lord Blackwood Mark Strong is effective in the most basic of fashions, he snarls well, he creates an uneasy atmosphere and audiences will hate him from the word go. In terms of blockbusting bad guys that renders him nearer the top of the pile.

Ritchie has never had such a mighty budget at his disposal and he showcases a surprisingly deft touch with CGI, not overloading the film with helpings of action but timing their inclusion rather nicely. Whilst it’s considerably more spectacle and explosion filled than any of Conan Doyle’s books the film isn’t as balls out action obsessed as early previews suggested, something of a relief for audiences tired of digitalised mayhem. Ritchie places notably more emphasis on the relationship between Holmes and Watson and the assorted comic banter the picture offers than his linear mystery or expensive blockbusting. Again this is a choice that might really pay off in future sequels, after putting so much effort into their relationship here the screenwriters should find it easier to maintain in further escapades. It’s a tactical choice that I admired and even in the immediacy of this film it remains enjoyable.

The film looks grubby in the most polished sense of the word, the London setting given a stylish sheen of greys and metallic blacks to create the down and dirty aesthetic of the city at the time. Adding to that is a rousing Hans Zimmer score which avoids the generic trappings of big budget music whilst getting the blood pumping in a way akin to many event movies. Ritchie at times robs a slow motion fighting style from Zack Snyder and it doesn’t really work in the context of this feature, but its usage is few and far between limiting the damage it does on the finished product. It’s hard to get around the open ended conclusion, a slightly disappointing and profit engineered climax. The last big set piece is certainly well handled but the story feels loose and utterly unresolved by the finish, a distraction that takes something away from the experience. However to say the movie is anything less than a robust studio picture would be unfair, it is for example better entertainment than the likes of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” or “Surrogates”. “Sherlock Homes” doesn’t work out to be a magnificent time at the cinema but it is technically excellent and a promising beginning for a new era at Baker Street.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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