Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Baker Street Irregular

Zaki's Review: SHERLOCK HOLMES

The recipe behind Warner Brothers' big budget redo of Sherlock Holmes is deceptively simple. Start with a familiar brand that's been out of the public eye for awhile. Add a critically adored star on the popular upswing. Sprinkle in a few well-liked supporting players. Top things off with a quirky director in need of a mainstream breakthrough. Heat, stir, and voilĂ . Brand new franchise, ready to serve. It all seems so...elementary.

As we enter, legendary detective Sherlock Holmes and trusted aide-de-camp Dr. Watson (Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, respectively) are racing to prevent one Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) from completing a satanic rite that will end with a young girl being murdered. One brief action sequence later, Blackwood is taken into custody, and the twosome put the pin in another case successfully solved.

Of course, there's still just under two hours of movie to go, so before you can say "the game is afoot," Holmes and Watson are chasing down a mystery involving Blackwood's re-appearance following his supposed execution, uncovering a plot against parliament, and, most pressing of all, dealing with a pair of feminine interlopers (Watson's fiancé Mary, played by Kelly Reilly, and Holmes' unrequited love Irene Adler, played by Rachel McAdams) who threaten to come in the way of their "special" relationship. Diabolical indeed, Holmes!

As envisioned by director Guy Ritchie (the Ritchie of Snatch, thankfully, and not the Ritchie of Swept Away) this Holmes exists in an 1890s London with perpetually grimy streets and perpetually gray skies. Here, in addition to the usual business of sleuthing, Holmes and Watson spend just as much time tossing witty one-liners at one another as they do dodging fists, bullets, and explosions. Call it Lethal Weapon for the Victorian set.

If that sounds like a surprising conjunction to make, what's even more surprising is how splendidly it works. While this no doubt represents a sharp break from the popular conception of these characters, with Downey nowhere near as lanky, and Law nowhere near as portly as we've come to expect, an occasional reinvention is hardly something new for the celebrated crimestoppers.

First created by Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 1800s via a series of popular novellas (the entire library of which I practically devoured in much younger days), Sherlock Holmes has been played by 75 different actors in more than 200 different screen productions stretching back to the medium's infancy, earning the character a hallowed slot in the Guinness Book.

Whether the 20th Century Fox/Universal film series of the '30s and '40s, with Basil Rathbone in the lead, the Jeremy Brett-starring British TV production of the '80s and '90s, or the numerous one-offs and parodies in between, there's rarely been a time during the last century-and-change that Doyle's characters haven't occupied some part of our shared cultural consciousness.

Since the end of the Brett series in the mid-90s, however, and with the absence of any new productions in the offing, Holmes and Watson had become icons in search of a temple. Into this breach ride Downey and Law, whose depictions stay within the bounds of "acceptable" as defined by Doyle, but add just enough nuance as to make these immortal figures uniquely theirs.

With his rapid-fire delivery coupled with a mean right hook (given his propensity for pugilism, this is certainly the most shirtless Sherlock we've ever seen), Downey imbues the Great Detective with the barest hint of madness, as if the continued thrill of the hunt is the only thing keeping him on this side of sanity. In contrast, Law plays the straight man to perfection, elevating Watson beyond the bumbling, befuddled persona popularized by Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone series, and back to the capable, confident doctor present in the texts.

McAdams' Irene Adler also traces her roots to the literary Holmes (specifically the short story "A Scandal in Bohemia"), but let's be honest, in a men's club like this her role is mostly confined to being "the girl," and in that limited capacity she avails herself just fine. While Mark Strong is suitably dastardly as the archfiend the pair must match wits against, his Lord Blackwood can't escape the feeling of being a mere placeholder 'till the real baddie shows up next time (Holmes aficionados already know who I mean).

With a story crafted by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg (picking and choosing liberally from the Doyle catalog), the entire thing is as thoroughly engaging as it is utterly preposterous. Even so, it fits quite comfortably into Doyle's fictional world while opening it up to a much broader audience than would otherwise deign to be interested.

The '09 model Holmes is at once a fresh reinvention of the concept for modern sensibilities, and a surprisingly grounded embrace of its pulpy roots. Based on the studio's recent history with brand management (Harry Potter and Batman, to name just two), it seems assured that this latest chapter in the Holmes cinematic history will be a lengthy one. B+

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