By Drew Turney
Far more interesting than anything new ”Sherlock Holmes” offers us are two simple truths to be gleaned about popular culture.
The first is that studio executives and/or director and writers obviously think that after a generation of the violence in video games and blockbuster movies, the old literary institutions like curiosity, innocence, mystery and wonder simply aren’t enough to entertain us anymore.
We saw it last year with ”Alice in Wonderland”, where Disney and Tim Burton turned a jaunty little tale about an adventurous young girl skipping through gardens with fantasy creatures and turned into Lord of the Rings for moppets, complete with a climactic fight scene, giant monster and armies clashing on the battlefield.
Similarly, you’ll wonder if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might be turning in his grave if he could see how his most beloved creation has been recast for modern audiences. The gentleman who used reason and deduction and whom rarely picked up a gun or threw a fist is portrayed in an action thriller crammed with gigantic explosions and bone crunching fistfights. The news that Guy Ritchie was helming the big screen outing of literature’s most famous detective seemed strange at the time but he was the perfect choice for a period buddy action comedy.
The second interesting aspect is the paradox of our love of violence in movies to begin with. Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty’s (Harris) scheme is to positioning himself to own most of the industrial war-fighting supply when the inevitable happens and Europe descends into chaos. As history’s first global arms dealer, Moriarty is portrayed as the villain because weapons are bad and evil.
The dichotomy is when the very same film invites us to gasp at the thrill of how cool guns and weapons can be. Ritchie’s most visually inventive sequence has Holmes (Downey Jr), Watson (Law), gypsy Simza (Rapace) and her gang running through a forest while German troops unleash everything from rifles to mounted cannons on them.
Ritchie veers dizzyingly from slo-mo to ultrafast to show us bullets and shells shredding trees, narrowly missing the heroes and hitting disposable secondary characters with almost sexual delight. If it had been a smarter movie the intent might have been to hold a mirror up to our love of the sort of violence on screen that terrifies us in real life.
It’s 1891 and Watson is about to abandon his position as the eternal sidekick once and for all to wed his fiancé. But as Holmes says, his timing couldn’t be worse. Professor, intellectual and author Moriarty might be the only man in Europe with an intellect to match Holmes’, and after an attempt on the life of Simza in a theatre parlour, the pair plunge into more intrigue and danger with the gypsy in tow.
It’s far less about Holmes and Watson as detectives and much more about them as comic action heroes. The film includes a couple of stylized but throwaway sequences where Holmes casts his eyes about a room and can tell exactly what happened there. Ritchie’s much more interested in laughs and big set pieces, everything from Holmes’ latest fascination with body coverings that blend him with the background to a lighthouse falling over to crush a warehouse district.
He also seems a little too in love with bullet-time and other visual flourishes. They were done to good effect in ”Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and ”Snatch” but here they just seem to remind you you’re watching little more than a big studio blockbuster.
If there is any more, it’s thanks to Downey Jr’s rakish charm as Holmes and Harris as Moriarty. He portrays a truly sinister villain even though he’s never more than a soft-spoken man in a fine suit – an achievement in itself today when bad guys are more identifiable by their gimmicks than their character. He’s actually a little reminiscent of Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in ”Die Hard” – in the same way you could see the evil behind Rickman’s humour, it’s visible behind Harris’ composure and gentlemanliness.
Rapace can hold her own on screen but she doesn’t have much to do but prop up the boys. It’s good that she’s entering the big leagues after her head turning work in ”The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, but it’s a little sad to see her follow such an oft-trod path from independent/small film standout to third wheel chick in the studio system.
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