I think 2009 will be remembered as the Year of the Reboot. Like Star Trek, this is sort of Sherlock Holmes, but mostly not. On the other hand, the atmosphere is pure Victorian London — it’s grand and grimy all at the same time, and it seems very accurate. Well, okay, it’s a Victorian London where they’ve already invented tasers, remote controls, and weapons of mass destruction, but aside from that it seems very accurate.
Anyway, Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Zodiac) is Sherlock Holmes, or claims to be. He says lots of Holmes’ lines from the original stories, he boxes, he performs weird experiments, he shoots pistols in the house, and he locks himself in his rooms for days on end just like Holmes; but somehow I was still never convinced of his identity. Jude Law, though, made an excellent Watson, which was a very pleasant surprise. He was calm, practical, and generally just the right antidote to his detective friend’s manic, impractical, and generally unsettling ways. He also was not a hapless, uncoordinated idiot, which so many writers have made him, even though he wasn’t supposed to be anything of the sort in the original stories.
So far, things have sort of evened out — one really bad casting decisions, one really good one. Then we come to the, um, lady of the story, who neither acts nor dresses like a lady, one Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, who looks like she’s wandered off the cover of a 1980′s era, pseudo-historical bodice-ripper romance novel). She’s always the woman they throw in when they really, seriously want to mess with the Holmes universe, because she’s the one that Holmes referred to as “the woman,” according to Watson, who should know. This, however, was because she was the only female Holmes ever ran across who bested him in a battle of wits. This is a huge thing when one’s career is literally one’s wits, and is more than enough explanation for Holmes’ notice without wedging in romantic feelings, but that’s what everyone does. It’s very sadly predictable.
And they don’t disappoint me here. Well, they do, but I can at least say that I predicted being disappointed accurately. The writers then go on to mess with Watson’s romantic history, apparently solely to give someone a chance to throw wine in Holmes’ face. The doctor is engaged to marry Mary Morstan, who featured in one of the original Holmes stories (The Sign of Four), and who Watson actually did marry — but for whatever bizarre reason, here she never did feature in that case, because Holmes hasn’t met her yet when the film opens. The two men seem to have known each other forever, judging by the way they harrass each other, but there’s never any mention of any other cases they’ve worked on, which is very unlike the stories.
In fact, let me just list the ways in which this flick actually follows the Holmesian traditions: the names and occupations of all the main characters are the same. Except that isn’t right, either, because “Scandal in Bohemia” Irene Adler is a woman with a very faintly checkered past (standard for any female who dared to act or sing at that time) who bests Holmes because she wants to marry a man she deeply loves and get on with being happy. Movie Irene Adler is an amoral. ruthless adventuress, thief, and con artist who talks like she’s been married seventeen times. Somehow, even in the sexist Victorian world, where a woman just might be able to get a divorce if she’s extremely rich and can prove extreme cruelty on the part of her husband, Irene Adler is able to get divorced as often as she likes. She’s also able to walk the streets dressed like a neon flamingo without being arrested for prostitution, or possibly just terribly bad dress sense.
|Rachel McAdams prepares to read up on the technology used to make her dress glow in the dark.
But the good news is that it does have a plot! As much of a plot as ever a Holmes story did, since even their author admitted that they were more exercises in logic for the famed detective than stories in the usual sense. So I didn’t really mind that the whole film is mainly a series of weird and interesting events (secret societies, booby traps, men bursting into flames, French giants, etc.) that don’t really fit together until it’s all explained at the end, because that’s how it should be. I was only bothered that it was Robert Downey Jr. explaining things, and somehow it sounded like he was just reading it all from the script.
I think that the Holmes franchise (and yes, it’s going to be a franchise, sadly, as the ending isn’t so much an ending as a teaser for the next film), is being groomed to replace the Bond franchise. Now that James has moved on to be meaner, rougher, and tougher all around, the world (apparently) needs another kinder, gentler action hero, and for some reason I’ll never understand, the movie studios have turned to Holmes and Watson. But the best I can possibly rate this is three idols, and that’s a very bad sign, since starting at that level means that it will take only three or four movies before they become unwatchable, based on the usual sequel slump in quality. My suggestion? Keep Jude Law and recast Holmes. Let Robert stick to the Iron Man franchise, because Tony Stark is supposed to be spoiled and self-centered and charming, in a really smarmy way. He’s born to play Tony Stark! I’m not sure I even care who they replace him with for Holmes as long as the guy is about the right age, can act, and isn’t Jim Carrey. Oh, and actually is English, because it would really be nice to have an English actor playing the world’s most famous English detective. Elementary.