by Jef Burnham
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At every turn, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes falls victim to the inadequacies of modern popular filmmaking. The trailers suggest an action-packed, comic adventure featuring the iconic super sleuth tackling a mystery of biblical scope with terrific performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. What we get instead is clunky plotting, insulting cinematography, and no mystery whatsoever. It does deliver on the terrific performances though.
Downey’s Holmes and Law’s Watson are wonderful. The only times the film truly captivates is when they are on screen together. This Holmes, though riding significantly on the public’s existing knowledge of him, represents those bits of Doyle’s character that rarely make the screen, such as his proclivity for fighting, his often antisocial demeanor and his general disdain for tidiness. In one of the strongest scenes in the film, we see how Holmes uses his knowledge of anatomy in his bare-knuckle boxing. The greatest disappointment I had with Holmes is that Ritchie focused so very little on Holmes’ drug use, which had some very practical applications I’ll get to later. As for this Watson, though again thin on original characterization, he provides the perfect foil to this Holmes.
Apart from that, the film is populated by the most cliché rabble of characters, to which Guy Ritchie’s typically hollow cinematic flair adds the proverbial insult to injury. Fast motion sequences, innumerable flashbacks and bizarre angles abound. It often feels like Ritchie is overcompensating. Perhaps for the completely obvious mystery or the poorly-written supporting characters. I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that all his quick, twisty camera movements and upside down shots amount to nothing. When a filmmaker decides to use an unusual angle or cinematic device, it must mean something. It should tell the audience something about the internal state of the character or add to the atmosphere of the piece. For example, look at any shot in Citizen Kane. If Sherlock Holmes had focused in any significant capacity on Holmes’ drug abuse, especially his cocaine addiction (which is never utilized in the film), there would have been cause for the rapid cuts and fast motion imagery. As is, the only thing these touches add is an insult to the intelligence of those viewers who prefer substance to glitz.
Even more so than the stylistic shortcomings, the film’s antagonist, Lord Blackwood, falls short of audience expectations, given the strength of Downey’s Holmes. Blackwood is bland in every way, particularly in his criminal motivations. Seriously, and I wish I was kidding here, Blackwood and his gang of faux-witchcraft cronies want to “take over the world.” There were definite groans in the theater. This character is implausible all the way down to his title. “Lord” Blackwood’s father is indeed a member of the aristocracy, but Blackwood himself is an illegitimate son of a Lord, who has yet to be legitimized, and therefore cannot inherit his father’s title. Granted, there are other ways he could have been bestowed with such a title, but all the evidence we are given in the film is contrary to the order of things. The writers must have figured we countrified rube that make up the general audience would not spot this inaccuracy as we have believed that all villains are given the title “Lord” since we first saw Star Wars.
What’s worse is that we come to realize at the film’s conclusion that the whole thing, from a half hour in, has done nothing more than establish the film’s sequel, making the “mystery” of Blackwood unimportant in the scheme of a nonexistent, pending franchise. In essence, this film is a prologue— incomplete. What makes Guy Ritchie think that audiences should pay to sit through a film that can’t stand alone, yet is not itself a sequel? This isn’t like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where all three films were made concurrently. Yet Ritchie leaves his film’s success as a piece dependant on as yet nonexistent films. It is a shame that such excellent actors as Downey and Law contributed so much to a film so inconsequential.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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