Monday, December 28, 2009
Steampunk Holmes: Thoughts on Sherlock Holmes
Robert Downey Jr. -
Downey Jr. is superb as Holmes. Totally invested, he molds Holmes’s eccentric characteristics into the consummate mad genius. All the characteristics are here – his powers of deduction, his mastery of disguise, his sardonic wit. What Downey Jr. does is effortless, and his glib facility for speech is phenomenal. He doesn’t perform Holmes; he becomes Holmes, re-inventing him as a seedy, cynical agoraphobic adept at fisticuffs, not entirely the Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, but still the most engaging aspect of this film.
Unfortunately, in this film Sherlock Holmes doesn’t get to be Sherlock Holmes in the traditional sense of deducing the meaning of important clues throughout the story. He deduces Watson’s fiancé’s past, and facts about other characters, but we don’t get to hear his conclusions about all the important evidence – the potions and petals and powders and chunks of marble stuck together with a paste made of honey – until the end of the movie, after the villain’s death – and then it doesn’t matter. There’s no enjoyment derived from trying to draw our own conclusions about evidence and then hearing Holmes’s superior pronouncements. Holmes spends much more time engaged in fisticuffs than in doing what Sherlock Holmes does best.
Way too much time spent on fisticuffs. I like the fact that Holmes can lay his opponents low, and I like how he plots out his punches ahead of time like chess moves, but the fights are too loud, too sped-up motion, and too long. The confrontation in the dry dock with the giant Lurch, who picks up the huge sledgehammer and faces Holmes who holds a much smaller hammer, is clever and fun to watch, but it comes halfway through a much longer fight and chase.
Steampunk London –
London is dark, sooty, muddy, full of dirty street people, and the accent is on a steampunk atmosphere of Thames riverboats, clanking gears, massive chains, iron hulls, the emerging steel structure of the Tower Bridge, and fantastic electrical and radio-signaled contraptions in a setting that is still old-fashioned Victorian England.
Jude Law –
Jude Law’s Doctor Watson is clever, suspicious of and perturbed with his best friend, Holmes, and he can’t give up a life of adventure and investigation. Jude Law is the best Watson yet, and we see his irritation and love for his friend all in a single affectionate but exasperated glance.
Rachel McAdams –
Pale as a ghost; horrendously bad eye makeup. It’s never clear what she’s up to – oh, yeah, working for Professor Moriarty, Holmes’s nemesis, chap with the chalky lapel. To do what? Steal some device whose function is a mystery? Oh, she’s sneaky and self-sufficient, but with Holmes and Watson so richly portrayed, who needs the American?
What’s the label for the use of sped-up jump cuts (usually for flashbacks) interspersed with slow-mo (to focus gratuitously on a punch) that is often typical of violent Brit crime dramas directed by Guy Ritchie or films like Crank? Whatever the label, it was interesting seeing this visual approach to a Sherlock Holmes tale set in Victorian England. But, by Jove, a little of it goes a long way and often goes too fast to register. Got real tired of it here.
Moments of silence –
Two favorite moments: 1) In the ring, Holmes seems to be losing the match with a burly Irishman. Then he plots out devastating hits on his opponents and lays him flat. The crowd is silent as Holmes staggers out of the grimy ring. 2) Too late, Watson realizes he’s triggered a booby trap. He warns Holmes just as explosion after explosion bursts out slow-mo with muffled sound effects while Holmes shields himself with a door and runs the gauntlet of detonations.
Evil plot –
Not knowing anything about the so-called diabolical plot until the end of the movie robs the film of dread and suspense. And then Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) doesn’t put up much of a fight. It all seems so sinister in the beginning, but then the bloke hangs quite nicely. As for the plot to take over the United States, weakened by the Civil War: Yeah, maybe weakened because Lincoln is dead, but Ulysses S. Grant has formed one of the most powerful armies in the world. Anyway, whatever – ho, hum.
Best elements –
I loved the look of the film – dark and mechanical steampunk London – and it would almost be worth seeing it again to savor every word uttered by the masterful Downey Jr., but the film’s fine performances and visual trappings deserved a better plot.