04 January 2010

Sherlock Holmes

One of the movies I saw over vacation was Guy Ritchie's new Sherlock Holmes adaptation. I quite liked it. I'm not sure how much I really have to say about it, other than it was a fun action movie, with good acting by Downey especially, as well as solid performances by Law and McAdams. I thought the art direction and overall look was very good. It struck a good balance between seedy underbelly and fanciful Victoriana. The world was dirty without ever being too gloomy for an action movie.

Primarily I want to address this preemptive complaint from Julian Sanchez:
I haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes yet, but I’ve seen way too many writers who ought to know better pitching the so-contrarian-its-now-CW line that Guy Ritchie’s transformation of Conan Doyle’s ├╝berrational sleuth into a two-fisted brawler is actually faithful to Conan Doyle’s original stories. After all, Holmes is described as being not just a skilled boxer, but a master of singlestick, fencing, and “baritsu.” In a few brief scenes over the course of of 56 short-stories and four novels, we even see him employ these skills.


The rare fight scenes establish that merely physical challenges are no real challenge at all for Holmes: He wins his fights quickly and handily. Combat is just one more discipline he’s studied and mastered. But they also underscore, by their very rarity, that Holmes could be much more of an “action hero”—and chooses not to. He’s capable of throwing a punch with the best of them when it comes to that, but usually manipulates circumstances so as to render such crude displays unnecessary. Despite being an expert marksman, he typically relegates pistol-brandishing duty to Watson or the police, leaving him free to deliver witty remarks to their quarry.
I think Sanchez won't be quite so disappointed when he actually sees the movie. Holmes does leave most of the firearms to Watson. He neutralizes a group of inmates in a decidedly non-physical way. Are the action elements ramped up in order to attract a wide modern audience? Absolutely. But I think Guy Ritchie did a very good job of incorporating them in without loosing Holmes' intellectual side.

I think this is clearest in the way two or three of the fights are presented. [This is a little spoiler-ish, so skip this paragraph if that kind of thing worries you.] Before the encounters begin, we hear Downey narrating how he will attack his opponent and why, based on his observations and deductions. Meanwhile we see the attack in slow motion, one blow at a time. When he gets to the end of the plan, complete with an estimated recovery time for the injuries he's about to inflict, we see the whole fight again, this time in full speed. I really liked this because it not only merges Holmes' brawling with his intellect, but it tempers Ritchie's usual editorial style down from it's typically frenetic pace. We still get the quick cuts and unusual angles we're used to from him, but we get to see things twice so it makes a bit more sense. Ritchie turns his usual frantic editing, which is fun but can also be a serious flaw in his movies, into a strength without sacrificing his personal style. In fact since it's so unusual to see events twice, back-to-back in movies, the correction which makes his style more palatable to the average audience is in it's own way experimental.

So, was Sherlock Holmes a great film? No, but it was very fun. They obviously set things up for a sequel, which I'm looking forward to seeing. Since I judge any narrative by the criterion of whether I wish there was more or not, Holmes succeeds.

Penultimate thought: Mycroft Holmes got a passing mention, but only in so far as Sherlock mentions he has a brother. I'd love to see Mycroft and the Diogenes Club in the next film.

Final thought: Somehow the crew succeeding in doing something I didn't expect to ever see on screen — making me think that Rachel McAdams isn't that pretty. That's quite a feat. I don't know how they did it. Maybe it was the funny hair?

PS Sanchez's post relates Sherlock Holmes' occasional brawling to the gospel story of young Jesus smiting a fig tree, which tickles me greatly.

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