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Sherlock Holmes - Out with the Old, in with the New

Sherlock Holmes is clearly a case of Hollywood getting its grubby mitts on a classic franchise, having its way with it, and turning it into something far more palatable for today’s, shall we say, less sophisticated audiences. It’s got all the classic hallmarks: explosions, action sequences carried out by characters who should barely know how to throw a punch correctly, and plenty of witticisms to keep the property well away from the dangerous territory of the serious.

What’s amazing is that this rather predictable Hollywood remake, this dumbing down of a classic figure of literature, actually manages to be thoroughly entertaining. Well, so long as you set your expectations correctly.

It would be fair to say that I know next to nothing about Sherlock Holmes save useless generalities. Even so, I know enough to say with a great deal of confidence that little effort at all was made in this adaptation to create a version of Sherlock Holmes that resembled the original even in the slightest. 

This movie features a remarkably smart British man who has a penchant for solving mysteries. If that’s all you need to believe a character is Sherlock Holmes then you should be right at home. For most it’s going to be a bit of a hard sell. His sarcastic wit, inexplicably superb fighting skill, and handsomely young appearance that one could politely say didn’t quite fit my initial expectation for the character make for a Sherlock Holmes that fits conveniently well into the ridiculous story he’s plopped into.

Whether this is a problem is going to be entirely up to the individual. As unfamiliar with the character as I am, it was rather easy to detach myself from my nearly nonexistent preconceptions and just go along for the ride.

And I must say, it is a pretty exciting ride.

It was an admittedly rocky start. The proper characterization needed to make Robert Downey Jr. believable as the genius detective was slow in coming, starting with an introduction more fit for Jason Bourne than Sherlock Holmes. The opening moments also meandered a bit before getting to the point and letting the audience in on the mystery at hand.

Still, once things had gotten underway and the movie had given me time to set aside my preconceptions, I found a perfectly enjoyable modern mystery thriller. 

Everything one needs to have a perfectly decent bit of fun in a movie like this is present and accounted for. It has exciting action, witty dialog, charming characters, intriguing romance, and, of course, more than a hint of mystery. I don’t wish to downplay the movie’s strengths, but quite honestly I find it hard to say much about them. The draw is not in the originality of the elements but in the quality of execution. 

Downey Jr.’s performance is captivating, if not quite as much so as his brilliant portrayal of the egomaniacal Tony Stark in Iron Man. The chemistry with both Watson (played charmingly by Jude Law in a manner even further from the source than Downey Jr.’s Holmes) and mysterious romantic interest Irene Adler (the enchanting Rachel McAdams) is nearly good enough to keep the movie compelling all on its own.

The Hollywood trappings of the story are helped along by a rather brilliant presentation, full of gorgeous cinematography, stunning sets of grimy old England, and Hanz Zimmer’s delightfully charming soundtrack. 

Zimmer’s experimental score deserves particular mention, as its variety and deviation from the norm was one of the highlights of the entire film. Its enthusiastic bizarreness fit right in with the fun spirit of the whole endeavor. Rarely does a movie’s soundtrack catch my attention as consistently as this one did. 

The story remains continually gripping right through to the satisfying conclusion, providing plenty of plot twists and exciting action. It comes dangerously close on a number of occasions to feeling like a James Bond movie that happens to be set a hundred or so years ago, but that’s fine. What’s here works. It doesn’t work as classic Sherlock Holmes, mind you, but it does work on some level.

And that’s the heart of it, really. As a portrayal of the classic image of the British detective, the movie is nothing short of a colossal failure (or so I would venture to guess based on my limited knowledge of the character). But that’s not the movie’s intention, so it almost feels unfair to judge it that way, though I wouldn’t call anyone crazy for doing so seeing as how “Sherlock Holmes” is right there in the title and all. It does feel a tad disingenuous.

Still, as a modern re-imagining of the character Sherlock Holmes largely succeeds, save for a rocky beginning and a few trite character and story bits which are to be expected in a big-budget Hollywood flick such as this.

There is one flaw that’s too egregious not to give special mention, however, and that’s the use of Hollywood’s newest darling, the teaser ending. You’ve surely encountered other endings before that feel more like commercials for the next movie than proper conclusions to the story you’ve just experienced. You’ve surely felt the disappointment and the emptiness that follows when an otherwise enjoyable story is capped off in such a manner.

Sherlock Holmes is an unfortunate victim of this increasingly common ill-conceived intrusion of marketing into proper storytelling. Instead of ending on a final note of Holmes’s current victory, it chooses the rather more sour note of deliberate plot holes left unresolved to end on instead. I feel the same story hooks could have been left open in a much less obvious manner. They should have gone for the subtle hint approach and instead they reached for the sledgehammer. As the movie’s ending was otherwise done quite well, this is truly a shame.

Still, on the whole the movie really is great fun. I wouldn’t call it accurate (either to period or source material) or believable or original, but it is fun. It does everything it needs to right and its blemishes are not enough to diminish my enjoyment. I went in with low expectations and came out legitimately impressed. Sherlock Holmes may treat its source material as vague inspiration more than anything else, but it provides a satisfying mystery/thriller movie romp in the style that Hollywood does so well. I may be miffed at the commercialized ending, but the movie’s many charms have ensured I’ll be seeing the sequel despite my best intentions.

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Reader Comments (2)

You might read a couple of the original stories to get a better feel for the character as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle envisioned him. Actually, I fell Downey rather nailed the original character. If you have an iPad (you should) grab the free Guttenberg Project version of the "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" and dive in. The original Sherlock was brilliant, a snob, a slob, a boxer, a fencer and a cocaine user He was almost asexual, but did have a certain fascination with a few women.

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGP

That's interesting. I might just do that. I have a collection of Doyle's stories around here somewhere. I might just have to drag it out and finally have a read.

September 23, 2010 | Registered CommenterBrendan T. Smith

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