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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
January 2010

Guy Ritchie Lite

Cult filmmaker tones it down in amusing but bland reinvention of 'Sherlock Holmes'

Sherlock Holmes
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenplay: Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, based on the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan and Kelly Reilly
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 8 minutes
(out of four)

Watching Guy Ritchie take his first shot at going Hollywood was a little bit like watching Conan O'Brien take over The Tonight Show. Once he was that mainstream, he wasn't (couldn't be?) quite the same Conan anymore. He was the neutered version.

Similarly, Ritchie has had a niche following for years thanks to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, but seems curiously out of his element in Sherlock Holmes, his first big-budget movie.

Some would argue that Ritchie being a little less Ritchie is a good thing. But in this case, trying to appeal to a mass audience rather than the passionate following that made his early films cult favorites, he came up with a product that falls in a sort of void - a movie few are likely to love or hate.

In retrospect, maybe it wasn't necessarily a good thing to hand Ritchie a star vehicle in a movie clearly envisioned by its studio as the spark for a big, juicy franchise. But the limitations seem expressly clear, the film ultimately being hindered both by franchise trends-of-the-week (Gritty! Dark! CGI action!) and even the casting of Robert Downey Jr. (Quirky! Sarcastic! Quirky!)

In this case, "action flick + RDJ" seems more like a package than a movie marriage. (Whereas with Iron Man, for example, Downey was not yet considered a bankable A-lister or action star.)

And so what the film loses, oddly enough, is any sense of Guy Ritchie-ness at all. Not that I necessarily want him to indulge in all the arbitrary camera tricks that so infuriated some (including me, at times), but he has a gift for gleefully ridiculous plot machinations and a sense of irony - two things that seem missing in Sherlock Holmes.

This movie is trying to get by on almost proper (by Ritchie's standards, anyway) British wit, and punctuating it all with action. And when you break down the plot . . . well, there's not much plot to break down. It's made up of mostly obvious conclusions that wouldn't even require the skill of a crackerjack sleuth like Sherlock Holmes. The way the movie is structured seems to hide that fact, insisting that something terribly mysterious is around the corner . . . only it isn't.

The movie relies too much on explaining everything after the fact - which makes sense, of course, since Holmes is all about cataloguing every clue, making every connection, figuring everything out. But the way the story is told to us, we don't get any sense of story all for the bulk of the movie - until the last 40 minutes, when the film explains that, yes, there really has been a storyline. And yes, it really was as obvious as that.

I wonder what Sherlock Holmes would have been like if Ritchie himself had penned the script. At least then we could reasonably expect some of the comic inventiveness and absurdity that this incarnation sorely lacks. As it is, it's a rather ordinary mystery that happens to feature some very good acting.

The film's delightful moments are the back-and-forths between the tortured, seemingly bipolar Holmes (Downey), and the much more refined Dr. Watson (Jude Law). It's a pleasure just watching the two actors work. Their chemistry is palpable - certainly more palpable than anything between Holmes and Irene Adler, a role that is a waste of both Irene Adler and Rachel McAdams.

I'm not sure if Ritchie will once again be behind the camera when the inevitable sequel goes into production - but if so, perhaps they'll loosen the reins a bit? I'll take Ritchie's weaknesses if it means getting his strengths.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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