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Sherlock Holmes

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Just One More Thing.

“No dour, cocaine-addled super-brain is he; no arch and upwardly mobile cocktail-swiller, no Belgian. He is as American as American can be in the best possible sense. There is — unlike almost every other detective in the canon, from Marlowe onward — a moral lightness and an untroubled heart at the core of him, an innate goodness that resonates outward and either puts people at ease or deeply unsettles them, as their own consciences dictate.”

By way of Cryptonaut-in-Exile and LinkMachineGo, why Columbo should be the American Doctor Who. “[D]o not allow yourself to believe for even one second that there are not deeply classist, capitalist reasons Sherlock abounds in this day and age of ours, while Columbo does not. Sherlock is more often than not nowadays played as relatively young and good-looking, self-aggrandizing and mercurial and aristocratic, a troubled genius too good for the idiotic plebes that surround him; Columbo is blue-collar and humble.”

Defective Detective.

With our protagonist’s chief arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, emerging from the darkness for his curtain call, Guy Ritchie’s lazy, loud Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows should be The Dark Knight to the first film’s Batman Begins. It is, only to the extent that Ritchie et al have continued to make of Holmes a Victorian-Era Batman, cursed with observational and deductive skills so overpowering that he can basically see the future and single-handedly beat up crowds of thugs like it’s Arkham City. Otherwise, unfortunately, they’ve made a hash of it. In short, this is more like the Iron Man 2 to the first film’s Iron Man.

When the better-than-expected first movie appeared during Xmas 2009, the Guy Ritchification of Sherlock Holmes seemed like an innovative approach to Arthur Conan Doyle’s mythos, one that found room for 21st century action movie conceits within the material of the original stories. But, perhaps in part because that approach is no longer fresh this time, or perhaps because Stephen Moffat’s team has managed to rejuvenate the character more traditionally on BBC, A Game of Shadows is much less entertaining — I found the first hour almost unwatchable. The best thing you can say about it is that it gets better as it goes along.

A Game of Shadows begins far too frenetically, with Sherlock (Robert Downey Jr.) trying to intercept his love interest from the first film, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), as she delivers what very well could be a parcel bomb on orders from the dastardly Professor Moriarty. (Jared Harris, the best thing here by far.) Plenty of worthwhile action movies begin with this sort of in media res setpiece, going back to Raiders of the Lost Ark and including the first film (when Holmes and Watson, iirc, prevent some sort of satanic ritual perpetrated by Mark Strong’s Big Bad.) But here, the tone and pacing feel off from the start, with Ritchie-being-Ritchie, an endlessly mugging Downey, and the bombastic soundtrack all trying to oversell us on the antic mischief at hand.

Game of Shadows continues in this unfortunate vein for most of the next hour, lurching frantically from setpiece to setpiece — Watson’s bachelor party, Watson’s honeymoon on a train, a Roma camp, the Paris Opera — but never establishing any compelling interest in the goings-on. (Along the way they pick up mysterious gypsy Noomi Rapace, who adds very little — although it’s not really her fault.) Seriously, this first half of the film is close-to Van Helsing-bad.
It doesn’t help that Holmes’ powers of deductive ass-kickery only seem to have strengthened during the interstice between films: In terms of extra-sensory fighting style, he might as well be Daredevil at this point. In terms of problem-solving — for example, when he finds that secret door in the Paris catacombs — he’s Professor X, doing more mind-reading than solving puzzles. (Also, despite the fact that he’s meant to be the world’s greatest detective, I’m not sure Holmes asks anyone a single question over the entire course of the movie.)

All that being said, the movie does begin to pick up in the back end — right around the time Holmes and Watson stop by a German munitions factory. (There are still some groaners to be had later. I’m looking at you, epipen.) This is mainly because, for one, all the nameless goons get left behind and the supervillains of the piece, matching our heroes in absurd power, move to the fore: Moriarty seems to have Joker-in-TDK-like levels of prescience, and his #2, Col. Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson), becomes, for all intent and purposes, Deadshot. For another, the movie wisely borrows dramatic heft from staging its final act at Reichenbach Falls — and, indeed, it’s the battle-of-wits between Holmes and Moriarty atop those fateful falls that makes for the most engaging scene in the film.

Still, it’s a real slog to get to Reichenbach, with only Harris’s mannered malevolence as Moriarty offering any respite for much of the way. (Well, Law’s not bad, either, but by design he takes a back seat to the more manic and off-kilter Downey. And Stephen Fry, in a dream role as Mycroft Holmes, is unfortunately wasted.) Holmes fans will know that the story much of this movie was drawn from, “The Final Problem,” turned out to be not-so-final after all. If A Game of Shadows is what we can expect from the rest of this franchise, here’s hoping this film is more successful at bringing the curtain down on this iteration of Holmes. Mr. Cumberbatch, you are needed.

Dragon of the Baskervilles.

Some recent news on the Hobbiton front: Peter Jackson has rounded out the casting of An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again (some solid titlage there, by the way) with Evangeline Lilly as an elf named Tauriel, Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries as the Goblin King, Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman, and Bilbo’s investigatory companion, Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch, as the voice of Smaug. “As well as playing Smaug, Cumberbatch is voicing the Necromancer, the evil Mirkwood sorcerer who is revealed in the Lord of the Rings to be the evil spirit Sauron.” (Smaug pic via here.)

Anything for a Pryce.

He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.

Sounds like am organizational genius, a master of efficiency…a bit like Lane Pryce, no? Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes gets his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, in veteran character actor Jared Harris. I like it. (FWIW, I still haven’t caught the the Moff’s contemporary Holmes reboot for BBC, but I hear good things.)

Dr. Watson: One Hoopy Frood.

“I’m so proud of this particular group of programs,’ says ‘Masterpiece’ executive producer Rebecca Eaton. ‘These three series say everything about what ‘Masterpiece’ aims to be: iconic, rich with wonderful actors, witty, literate, and timeless. I can’t wait to see them all.'” Along with Upstairs, Downstairs and a take on the Aurelio Zen novels, Sherlock Holmes will get a 21st century revamp for BBC’s Masterpiece Theater, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (of Atonement, although I don’t remember him) as the eponymous detective and Martin Freeman (i.e. the original Tim and most recent Arthur Dent) as Dr. Watson. In addition, new Who guru Steven Moffat is co-producing. (Via Dangerous Meta and cdogzilla.)

Detective Comics.

Now that the book has been closed on the Curious Case of the Lengthening Decade Retrospective, time to get back to a few last holdovers from 2009 not quite superlative enough to make the end of year top twenty. First up, Guy Ritchie’s summer-movieish revamp of Sherlock Holmes, which was…more enjoyable than I expected, frankly. While it has elements that don’t work — most notably Irene Adler and too much future-tech — it’s actually quite a bit more Holmesian than I originally surmised, and not bad at all for a holiday popcorn film.

Ok, yes, this is basically just Sherlock Holmes as summer-movie superhero. Here, the famous detective of 221B Baker St. — now the “world’s greatest detective” in the Batman sense — has lost the trademark deerstalker and calabash. Here, he’s a boxer and martial arts expert, and these fighting skills are put to work as often as his talent for masterful observation. And, yes, in the climactic scene, as per summer-blockbuster tradition, Holmes actually fights the Big Bad — the insidious Aleister Crowley wanna-be Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) — mano a mano atop the yet-to-be-completed Tower Bridge.

This may all rankle some purists with fond memories of Basil Rathbone and the like. But I thought it all worked out decently well, and in fact this Victorian-era Batman incarnation of Holmes seems — to me at least — to be pretty close to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original vision. (Replace the Tower Bridge with Reichenbach Falls, and Blackwood with Professor Moriarty, and all of the changes above hew to the Holmes of the stories.) And, while I’m no doubt a beneficiary of very low expectations for this project — the ‘splosion-ridden trailers made it look really dumb — this Sherlock Holmes actually spent more time utilizing his vaunted skills of deduction than I expected going in. (This also allows Ritchie to favor one of his favorite cinematic tricks from Snatch and Lock Stock — showing the same event multiple times until the “real” story is told.)

In fact, I actually like some of the characterizations here in this Holmes. Thankfully not at all reminiscent of Tony Stark (even when he’s for-some-reason rocking sunglasses in a Victorian graveyard), Robert Downey, Jr. here makes for a quality master detective, all in all. He makes Holmes’ eccentricities seem like an organic outgrowth — or even an unintended consequence — of his intellectual gifts, rather than just grafted-on character tics. (I particularly liked the Superman-ish conceit, before dinner with the future Mrs. Watson (Kelly Reilly), that Holmes has trouble filtering through all the information he’s picking up at all times.)

And, while the bromance aspect here is probably overemphasized (it definitely made the Doyle estate blanch), I like that this Dr. Watson (Jude Law) brings certain things to the table that complement Holmes’ strengths. Watson is not just a bumbler here but an invaluable #2 — he’s not bad at detection himself, he can hold his own in a brawl, and he helps keep Holmes focused on the task at hand. Sure, one could argue that Ritchie et al have basically just made Dr. Watson the Robin to Holmes’ Batman, but, again, this felt closer to the mark of the original stories to me. (Although, speaking of grifting from the Dark Knight, I thought the sequel-setup involving Professor Moriarty here at the end was way too reminiscent of the Joker foreshadowing in Batman Begins.)

Are there problems with Sherlock Holmes? Oh, most definitely. For one, like I said, Holmes and Watson fall ass-backwards into situations requiring fisticuffs entirely too often to be plausible, which amplifies the action-movie stupid of these proceedings. For another, I think Rachel McAdams is usually both a very good and very fetching actress. But she seems entirely too young for the role of Irene Adler, Holmes’ match in wit, intellect, and derring-do. To switch tracks for a moment, Adler is the Marion Ravenwood to Holmes’ Indy, and, as such, this was a part screaming for the likes of Cate Blanchett or Tilda Swinton — someone closer to Downey’s actual age. (For that matter, they should’ve given her more to do than just be a damsel in distress, but that tends to be a hazard of the genre.)

Finally, and this is where Ritchie’s film really sorta lost me in the end, the technology involved in this story should also have been (Victorian) Age-appropriate. At one point early on, Holmes is seen working on a silencer…that doesn’t quite silence. Ok, that’s fine, as it turns out “suppressors” went on the market not too long after this period. But Tasers? Cyanide canisters under Parliament that are operated by remote control? C’mon now, that’s just lazy. I don’t mind all the “secret potion extracted from dried rhododendrons found only in deepest Namibia”-type stuff, because the original stories went there rather often. But giving the otherwise great villain Lord Blackwood access to 21st century WMD-tech is just plain idiotic. The Hurt Locker this ain’t.

So, my dear Watson, to conclude: If you approach Guy Ritchie’s action-fable with appropriately dimmed expectations, and remain cognizant that we’re traipsing about in summer blockbuster territory here, Sherlock Holmes is actually pretty worthwhile. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it smart entertainment or anything. But, for what it is, Holmes is no embarrassment to its titular character, and you can probably count me in for the inevitable sequel. (Can’t say I’m much feeling Brad Pitt as Moriarty, but Pitt might could sell me on it. Perhaps, like Holmes, I should widen my gaze.)

The New Holmes: Sherlock, by way of Larry, Jr.

“Sure, he will still be smarter than everyone within a three-planet radius, and he will retain his uncanny ability to intuit whole life stories from the tiniest speck of dust on a shoe. But he will do those things while being a man of action, a chaser, shooter and pummeler of criminals — like ‘James Bond in 1891,’ Joel Silver, one of the film’s producers, said last fall.” Uh…ok. The NY Times‘s Sarah Lyall checks in on the progress of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (as Watson).

“Downey’s Holmes is darker than that of Mr. Rathbone…The new Holmes is rougher, more emotionally multilayered, more inclined to run with his clothing askew, covered in bruises and smudges of dirt and blood. This Holmes falls into modern-style funks between cases, lying on the sofa, suffused with anomie, unshaven and unkempt, surrounded by a pile of debris. He keeps his bills pinned to the wall with a bowie knife.” So, under Ritchie, Holmes has gone 21st-century emo, then. Nobody could’ve expected that.

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