Saturday, December 26, 2009

It is matter over mind in retooled ‘Sherlock Holmes’

By Steve Crum

If ever there was a case of movie making style over substance, it is Guy Ritchie’s disastrously directed Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role. The obvious millions pumped into the film’s CGI effects, set design and star salaries are smothered by its piercingly loud music and sound effects, choppy, confusing editing, and heavy handed use of both slow and fast motion. There is a plot in there somewhere, if one’s ears and eyes can survive the extremities.

Ritchie, who made his name with the stylistic Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), carries on his MTV-influenced ways with Holmes. During the numerous action sequences, for example, a punch to the jaw is done in slow motion, rapid cut to regular speed, followed by slow motion close-up to contorted face being hit, and then fast cut to combo fast and slow as the targeted guy either retaliates or slams against the wall while falling. It smacks, so to speak, of past movie fight scenes from Rocky, The Matrix, and Raging Bull. Unfortunately, Ritchie tries to create a sort of ballet about each of his half dozen or so slug sequences in Sherlock Holmes. It worked with Scorsese’s Raging Bull, but seems contrived under Ritchie’s hand.

Ritchie applies the slow-mo/fast-mo gimmicks throughout the film, even in mundane walking along the street bits. Jump cuts, wherein frames seem to be missing, are normal course. Example: a guy walks across the room, but suddenly he is on the other side of the room--sort of like The Flash. Orson Welles once criticized this kind of film direction as poor, since it calls attention to itself. The audience is drawn away from the plot and characters, and hooked into gawking at the tinsel of camera movements and editing. In a well directed film, paraphrasing Welles, one does not notice the direction. In Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, the directorial style, even with a fluid camera that seems to be penetrating roofs and windows, advances its pure storytelling.

That there is sparse plot to Sherlock Holmes is accentuated by Ritchie’s tedious, lengthy fight scenes. What is there left, really, without the violence? As sad and bothersome it is that the established dignified, laid back persona of sleuth Sherlock has been made-over into an unshaven, martial arts crime solver, the very least Ritchie and screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg could have supplied is a plausible and fascinating plot. But no. Instead the vapor thin story is sandwiched between fists, knives and chains. Even Hans Zimmer’s music score has a metallic, clang sound and beat, reflecting what dominates on screen.

At least base elements of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original creation exist in Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. Accompanying Holmes, who does display great forensic skills, is his ever faithful sidekick Dr. John Watson (Jude Law). Also present are Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), and Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) who is villainous in the Professor Morarity tradition. There are also scenes in Holmes’ fabled Baker Street abode. Savor these positive inclusions as well as the fine 19th Century, London set design created by Sarah Greenwood.

The plot involves Holmes solving a series of brutal, seemingly ritualistic murders around London. After the murderer is caught, tried and executed, the murders begin again. Could it be the murderer has been resurrected? Holmes and Watson are forced to carry on their brilliant deductions, even if dark forces are involved. It could be that the seemingly helpless Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) might know more than she claims. Again, this intriguing story line is veiled by punch and kick theatrics.

The sad thing about this Holmes version is that younger audiences, who probably have never seen any of the original 1930’s-’40s Rathbone versions of Holmes (or even 1959’s Peter Cushing take), will have only this introductory Downey version as their definitive Sherlock. The odds are even against their ever catching Jeremy Brett’s superb portrayal in BBC-TV’s 1980’s series.

Time to grab that Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes DVD set off the shelf and enjoy substance over style in crime solving. Even in black and white, the tried and true intellectual Holmes is more colorful than Downey’s. The stories are richer and more involving--with no kick boxing included.
On an A to F Grade Scale: D

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