Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Director: Guy Ritchie                                         Writers: Michael R. Johnson & Anthony Peckham
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                                 Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Mark Strong and Rachel McAdams

Though Robert Downey Jr. had made his comeback sometime before this, in the Iron Man films, for me it really began the previous year in Zodiac, and continued after Iron Man in The Soloist. But where his true métier shows is in the wonderfully reimagined films of the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle detective, Sherlock Holmes. Using all of modern technology, green screen and computer graphic effects, this steam punk update of the Victorian era was not the first. Films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing had been there first, but it was the élan of Downey as Holmes and his onscreen relationship with Jude Law as Dr. Watson--as it always has been--that has made these revisions a classic, unlike their valiant predecessors. The original story was pieced together by producer Lionel Wigram from various motifs in Doyle’s stories rather than specific story elements themselves, as well as ideas and people who were in London at the time. The plot, in its most simplistic form, resembles the gothic flavor of The Hound of the Baskervilles in pitting Holmes’ intellect and reasoning against an apparent supernatural force.

The film begins with a beautifully constructed studio title sequence that is made from cobblestones on a rainy street, complete with Hans Zimmer’s barroom piano on the soundtrack. A coach passes by and then the camera catches up to it. It’s a police wagon with Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade and other policemen, as well as Jude Law as Watson, loading their guns for an apparent raid. But then the coach is seen chasing someone, Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes, and the meaning is clear, the coach is trying to catch up to Holmes. Downey is after someone who leads him inside a labyrinthine building. Next the audience sees one of the unique aspects of the film. Downey needs to dispatch a night watchman and goes through all the moves in his head in slow motion before he attacks. This glimpse into the mind of Holmes is rarely seen in most films. Then, like something from the Perils of Pauline, the objective is shown, a woman on a slab the apparent victim of some dark ritual with Holmes rushing in to save her. Downey is almost ambushed but he is saved by Law and their witty repartee begins at once. Finally they capture Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood and the case is solved.

After the newspaper credits roll the scene shifts to Law showing his flat to an older gentleman, as he is getting married and leaving 221-B Baker Street. Downey, on the other hand, is despondent without a case, something reminiscent of the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. He comes between Law and his fiancée Kelly Reilly at dinner then goes boxing for recreation, destroying his opponent in the same way. The scene next shifts to the hanging of Strong, in which Downey is informed by Strong that more will die after his death, followed by the appearance of Downey’s former love interest, Rachel McAdams who mysteriously hires him to locate a missing person. The film really gets going when Strong apparently has risen from the dead and the missing person McAdams is after is found in the coffin instead. The race is on to stop the murders and find Strong before he can fulfill his prophecy. It’s a solid story, full of twists and leavened with plenty of humor, especially from Downey. The primary criticism of the film is that it transformed the mystery story into an action movie, complete with armed fighting, explosions, and numerous miraculous getaways. Still, the characters are the real draw and they are responsible for the bulk of the positive criticism the film received.

Robert Downey and Jude Law are like an old married couple in the film and it’s a joy to watch. Downey apparently advocated for the casting of Rachel McAdams, though for me she was the weakest character in the bunch, and the part would have benefited from a much stronger actress. The villain, on the other hand, could not have been more perfectly selected. Mark Strong does a terrific job as Blackwood--based on the likeness and public image of Aleister Crowley--and he would go on to play another villain in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood the following year. Eddie Marsan is a great foil for Downey as Lestrade, but Hans Matheson is a weak choice for the aptly named Lord Coward, and was likewise the low point in an otherwise brilliant cast a decade earlier in Bille August’s Les Misérables. Director Guy Ritchie actually does a solid job with the special effects and has a good eye for interesting camera setups. Color manipulation of the film helps to give it a period feel, though a more sepia tone rather than the blue-green tint would have perhaps been more interesting. Hans Zimmer’s score is also quite inventive, using a scratchy violin--an instrument associated with Holmes as well as English folk music--to give the music a distinctive personality. In all, Sherlock Holmes is a great addition to a legendary tradition and hopefully a franchise that will continue for many years.

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