In case your great aunt’s fruitcake wasn’t stale enough this holiday season (as stale as fruitcake jokes, perhaps?), head to the theater where you can get an eyeful of the same-old-same-old in Guy Ritchie’s unbearably boring Sherlock Holmes. The title character, a literary invention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is one of the few who is yet to find a modern home on the silver screen as the decade of franchises comes to a close. Having seen Superman, Spiderman, James Bond and the Star Trek crew get a bigscreen reboot in the aughts, the next ten years will be dominated by bottom of the barrel heroes who have had a cultural (read: box office) impact in other generations. So before you line up in 2010 for Clash of the Titans, enter the good inspector Holmes and his devoted sidekick, Dr. Watson.
Though most fans will agree that the cadaverous Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of the master sleuth is the truest, it is difficult to deny that Robert Downey Jr. is more than adequately equipped to carry the torch. He certainly throws the kitchen sink at the role, though there isn’t much for the gifted thesp to work with. Penned by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, this iteration of the Londoner gumshoe has little more than pecks to hang his hat on. Trained with the precision of a Kung Fu master, Holmes’ newfound brutish strenghth may be the result of deductive reasoning, but he is a brute nonetheless. Planting blows where words fail him, this Holmes is more a man of action than any that came before him, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if his intellect didn’t feel like such an afterthought.
Then there is Mr. Holmes’ devoted sidekick, Dr. Watson, here portrayed by Jude Law. The once sodden right arm of our hero has now come into his own, matching his partner wit for wit, blow for blow. Personally I’m glad to see Watson being used as more than a crumbcake sounding board, but the trouble is that he is too close to Holmes in every way. The skepticism and protestations are still there, but only glancingly. This Watson could go into private practice and he wouldn’t be missing much.
Instead of calling into question the culture of homophobia that pervades action cinema (a la Casino Royale), Mr. Ritchie takes the opposite route and just makes fun of the co-dependent crime solvers. Sure, each has a skirt to chase after in the film, but when push comes to shove they always choose each other. I can almost hear the director nudging the ribs of adolescent boys ages 15-55, whispering, “Aren’t they so gay for each other? It’s okay to laugh.” What’s all the more annoying in all of this is that Holmes’ sexuality, gay straight or otherwise, is a completely missed opportunity here. Downey is Downey so he exudes a raw sensuality, but I would have preferred him to smolder. We are instead slogged through these goofy fits of wink-wink-nudge- nudge as he chases after an out-of place Rachel McAdams for no reason.
Plot? Psht, don’t worry about plot here. Some jerk is trying to take over England or the world or something. Had the studio come to me in advance I could have advised they keep the nefariousness to a minimum and build character. Perhaps a serial killer would have been nice, but instead we have a fabulous magician (Mark Strong) leading a pack of fabulous Britons to some kind of fabulous display of, uh, manhood?
Finally, the visuals. The film is nothing if not stylized. Fashioned after a newspaper of the day, the colors are awash and some kind of muck sits between us and the film onscreen. It’s something between Harry Potter _and _300. In an effort to bring us back to merry old London, Mr. Ritchie and cinematographer Phillippe Rousselot have filled the screen with digitally enhanced everything, which is certainly one way to go, though not one I enjoy sitting through. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much.
Any time a character is brought to a new generation, there are undoubtedly changes that will appease new audiences and frustrate traditionalists. That Sherlock Holmes is now in his second century of pop relevance is no small feat, and the truth is that this film has sealed the interest of the next generation of filmgoers and readers. There is no doubt that we will see more of these films in years to come. One can only hope that whoever makes the next films will bring the character out of the slump this film represents; there isn’t anywhere to go but up.