Fear Not Sherlock Holmes

Having read all the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories as a boy, I have always been a big fan. And I really like Robert Downey Jr. in just about anything he does. So beginning last summer I was mortified by the preview of the new film Sherlock Holmes. The trailer made the film out to be another silly “roller coaster ride” movie full of nonstop action, incredible (as in not believable) stunts and special effects, but no wit, charm, or plot. I resolved not to see it at all costs. But then the reviews started coming in, and I was moved by this somewhat tepid endorsement of the film by Steven Barnes that reminded me of a side of Holmes that never made it into the Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett renditions:

I really wanted to love this movie, and instead I just kind of liked it. A lot. Guy Richie’s re-invention of the Sherlock Holmes film has, at it’s core, a great idea: let’s re-examine the way Doyle might have written about the exact same character in a more permissive, action-oriented era. All the elements are there: For others’ benefit, “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”, “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty”, “Gloria Scott”, “A Study in Scarlet”, “The Sign of the Four”, and “The Adventure of the Empty House” all make reference to Holmes’ skill as a bare-knuckle boxer, swordsman, stick fighter, and man of extraordinary strength and agility. Holmes spent much time in the seedier sections of London, often in disguise, and it is impossible to imagine a sane man doing this unless he knew how to handle himself. He studied “Baritsu” (apparently a misspelling of a hybrid style of Japanese-British boxing and wrestling techniques) and used it to overcome Professor Moriarty. So, from my position, the complaints about Holmes and Watson as action heroes is just ignorant. Ignorant not just of Holmes’ actual history, but of literary conventions of the time. . . . (read the whole thing

Then came this review by John Nolte of Big Hollywood with whom I am starting to believe I share much the same taste in films:

For those of you expecting what the trailer promised: a bloated, confusing, noisy, headache-inducing Christmas blockbuster weighed down with CGI and barely made watchable by the presence of He Who Makes Everything Better – star Robert Downey Jr. – you’re in for a surprise. Director Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” might be a tad bloated, somewhat hard to follow, and easily 15 minutes too long, but the director makes this umpteenth cinematic re-imagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s intrepid detective his own and delivers a spirited, entertaining, blissfully mindless couple of hours at the movies.

I did not read the rest of the review since I don’t like to color my experience of a film with a reviewer’s, but now I was willing to give it a try.

I saw it last night, and I think it was even better than either reviewer thought. The pacing was not all rock’em sock’em, and Downey was terrific as Holmes as was Jude Law as Watson. I even confess a soft spot for Rachel McAdams from her role as Claire in The Wedding Crashers. Unlike, for example, Quantum of Solace, there was a plot and there even were nice explications of Holmesian reasoning, though perhaps a few too few. The score by Hans Zimmer was, at one point, cleverly based on the chimes of Big Ben, and the sets of old London were very nicely done. Nolte credits the washed out coloration for it being hard to discern where sets ended and CGI began. Even the closing credits were special.

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A masterpiece it was not. Maybe not even a modern classic blockbuster like Gladiator. But I want to see it again, which is rare for me. Without going into any details, my advice to any fan of Sherlock Holmes: keep an open mind and be not afraid to see this film.

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