Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

One of the things about Sherlock Holmes stories that has always bothered me is the big reveal at the end.  More often than not, Holmes will figure out whatever secret the story requires relatively early in the plot, but will refuse to explain anything until the story is all but over.  It's not like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories were predictable by any means, so giving a hint here and there wouldn't hurt the story at all.  Instead, Holmes lectures Watson and the reader in an almost Jeff-Goldbloom-in-Independence-Day manner; his leaps in logic are enormous, the facts he spouts are obscure and unknown to any reader, and the facts that are given in the narrative are completely insufficient for any reader (even a detective) to reach the same conclusions independently.  As stories, I enjoy Holmes, but as mystery stories, I find their mockery insulting.

This movie, though, has the right idea.  Sherlock Holmes keeps the spirit of Doyle's best work, but manages to not be constrained by the source material.  This movie is the first Holmes film (to my knowledge) to have an original screenplay.  That means that even the most avid Holmes fan does not know what will happen next.  Brilliant!  Why didn't anyone think of this before?  I can imagine the pitch: "Umm...maybe, in this movie, the mystery can be one that wasn't written a hundred years ago?  Maybe?" 

Freed from the tethers of a predictable script, this movie really shines with its focus on the bromance between Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. John Watson (Jude Law).  Yes, the plot is really about the nefarious scheming of Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), but the bromance takes center stage.  This only works, though, because the two leads have great chemistry.  Downey's Holmes emphasizes the weird eccentricities of the character well, showing the brilliant as well as the crackpot aspects almost simultaneously.  The best moments with Holmes, though, were the simple ones.  For instance, his dinner date with Watson and Watson's fiance-to-be shed light on his character, from when he ordered his food (he timed it perfectly!) to the strain he endures due to his all too acute observation faculties.  Those were just great touches.  Jude Law was an interesting casting choice for Watson.  Oftentimes, Watson is portrayed on film as the quintessential sidekick to Holmes; he usually seems likable, but inferior to Holmes in every way except his ability to grow a mustache.  Here, he is intelligent, able, and very much Holmes' equal.  By making Holmes a little less omnipotent than usual and making Watson more competent, this film finally makes sense of their friendship.  The best parts of the film have these two arguing or helping each other out, in true best friend fashion.  Really, this feels more like a buddy flick than the typical wait-for-Holmes-to-explain-everything Sherlock mystery.  By having this film more character-based than plot-based, the filmmakers made this film more entertaining than any other Sherlock Holmes movie.

The plot here is relatively unimportant, since you know Holmes and Watson are going to solve an impossible mystery.  What is important, though, is the work of the supporting cast.  Mark Strong is a natural villain and his performance was on par with the two lead actors.  He wasn't fantastic, but he plays a respectable foil to Holmes' brilliance.  It is worth noting that Strong's character is an original creation for this film.  The supporting actresses, though, have their origins in Doyle's tales.  Rachel McAdams plays Irene Adler, the only woman to outwit Holmes ---twice! --- and thus, won his heart.  Kelly Reilly plays Mary, Watson's love.  Of the two, Reilly does a better job, adding assertiveness and some intelligence to a role that doesn't require much effort.  McAdams plays a femme fatale, but not very well.  Personally, I think she was miscast here.  The character is untrustworthy, clever, and sneaky.  When McAdams tries to portray these traits, she comes off as a sweet girl who abruptly becomes conniving with the flip of a switch.  If she played the role as a woman that was pretending to be nice, but was a stone cold bitch underneath, I might buy it.  Her abruptness, though, was off-putting.  Other key supporting performances by Hans Matheson and Eddie Marsan were a little more natural than McAdams', but more forgettable.

The blend of humor, action, and Britishness combine to make this easily the best film director Guy Ritchie has made since 2000's Snatch.  It has his trademarked slow-motion/fast-motion action, but Robert Downey Jr.'s narration over these scenes adds a pleasant new element to this standard trick for Richie.  The movie is well-paced and the character scenes show humor and even a little heart.  McAdams' acting indicates that Ritchie still hasn't quite figured out what to do with female main characters yet (Swept Away, anyone?), but he is definitely making strides toward becoming a more well-rounded storyteller.  The CGI used to make Old London was mostly well-used, although the climactic bridge scenes had some completely unnecessary zoom out with 360-degree camera rotation, a la Tony Scott.  Still, it is nice seeing Ritchie making fun movies again.

Was this a great film?  No, I wouldn't say that.  The main actors were a lot of fun to watch, but the supporting cast was a little lackluster.  The plot was decent, but forgettable.  Luckily, the movie focused on the Holmes-Watson friendship instead of the plot.  Fantastic detectives need fantastic mysteries to solve, after all, and an unimpressive mystery can only hinder a Sherlock Holmes tale.  To make up for this lack, the action and humor were turned up and used well.  That makes this a light, fun movie that serves as an excellent appetizer for a potentially awesome sequel.

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