Jul 17, 2012
Sherlock vs Sherlock
I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since elementary school, when I first discovered the books at the library. I probably was the only middle schooler in South Florida that was proud to own nearly one hundred year old detective stories. I'm not sure why I was so into the books. My love of reading has been a lifelong trait. I really enjoyed The Hardy Boys books, so maybe this was just a natural progression from that. I can honestly say that I have read every single (official) Holmes story and novel. I wouldn't call myself an expert that knows every last detail (like the people that wrote the Wikipedia page). But I think if you read over fifty different works about a character, you have a good understanding of it.
I feel like I have some fairly reasonable ground to stand on in a discussion of Holmes. My knowledge isn't based on a stereotype perpetuated by random references. So, how do I feel about the modern takes on this classic and beloved detective? Here's my general opinion: I like them. Now, I find it ridiculous that the people in charge of making movies are so unoriginal that they have to constantly reboot and rework and sequel current stuff. I wish that there was more original stuff out there. One of the reasons I like Christopher Nolan is that, while he is having tremendous success with reworking a classic character in Batman, he also creates original movies that are exceptional. However, this is just the way that the movie landscape is now. In light of that, I would rather see something based on Sherlock Holmes than other dumb stuff.
I don't have a problem putting a modern twist on an old character. To expect a filmmaker to stick religiously to a source work is a bit ridiculous. First of all, infinite retelling of a story would be a bit boring. It begins to feel like a high school production at that point. How many times can you see Romeo and Juliet done the same way? (Oh yeah, I'm also a huge Shakespeare fan.) Second, I have enjoyed seeing classic stories moved into different eras. It shows how they lasted for so long by the fact they can hold up in different settings. Conversely, I also like it when comic companies DC and Marvel have moved their comic book characters into different worlds in their "What If..." and "Elseworlds" series. Superman landing in Communist Russia? The infant Kal-El being found by Thomas and Martha Wayne? Batman as a medieval knight? Good stuff. Third, I like to see what others bring to the stories - what they appreciate is not always what I do. It helps a fan to see even more about their character.
My basic hope is that the creative director will at least stay somewhat true to the essence of the character. Move them around. Change their dialog or their costumes. Emphasize different character traits. But at least stay true. Take Batman, for example. The thing about comic books is that they always have different writers, so characters evolve over time. Batman has taken on a much darker tone in the last thirty years. Catwoman has moved from straight up villain to anti-hero to hero to villain. So it is little surprise the movies have taken different approaches. Tim Burton's films were wonderful. (I know some people disagree. I don't care.) Nolan has taken a completely different approach - trying to ground the superhero saga into reality, as much as that is possible. Of course, if you were a purist you SHOULD hate Nolan's efforts. But a true Batman purist can't hate Nolan's work because they only serve to enhance the overall Batman mythos. Burton, Nolan, the comic writers all try to stay true to the essence of the character. This is why Joel Schumacher's atrocities were SO offensive. They completely abandoned all of what made Batman what he is. He revisited and tweaked it to the point that it wasn't even the same universe.
So, when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, I can handle the different approaches. And what we have right now are two VERY different takes. On one hand, you have Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. presenting their movie version. On the other, you have Stephen Moffatt and Benedict Cumberbatch offering their television take. (Then there is CBS' upcoming Sherlock-in-New-York with a female Watson series which I will reserve judging until I see it. As ridiculous as it sounds. But I won't judge it yet. Or at least I'll try.) There really could not be two different ways to address this character than what is currently out there. The movie version leaves Holmes in the late 1800s, but emphasizes his physical prowess in weaving an action tale. The television show moves Holmes and company into present day London, while trying to keep true to the Holmes we know (just if he had a cell phone and access to a computer). The surprising thing is that both of them are very good and enjoyable. And both respect the character, while providing a welcome (and needed) modern update.
The very fact that Sherlock Holmes is pictured in the movie poster holding a gun and smirking instead of holding a pipe and thinking shows what kind of movie to expect. This is not going to be the traditional Holmes, bent over a desk and demonstrating all sorts of anti-social tendencies. Instead he is a lovable rogue who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. Guy Ritchie decided to tap into some of the lesser known characteristics of Sherlock Holmes - the disguises, the ability to fight, his attraction to Irene Adler. Instead of being fringe elements, these are played up more. In the books, Holmes could fight. He had knowledge of martial arts and bare knuckle fighting and was a strong person. But these were never distinguishing elements of his life - more of surprising facts that proved useful on occasion. He could have a wit about him and was very sarcastic, especially for the era in which he lived. However, there is a massive leap between that and RDJ. To me, it seems like Downey plays Holmes as a Victorian Tony Stark. He is smarter than everyone, does what he wants, but has developed this strong desire to see good - partly for the good of others, partly because it is a way to make himself feel superior. He has an abrasive nature, but not in the way of the classic Holmes. Its a likable unlikeability, if that makes any sense.
The biggest problem I have with the Holmes movies is that they really eliminate the mystery aspect. We are not drawn into this story, trying to figure out what is going on along with everyone else. Yes, there is some element of intrigue and some neat tricks in the reveal. But that was more apparent in the first movie, where I was seriously wondering how in the world the villain was alive when he was supposed to be dead. In Game of Shadows, we know the bad guy from the outset. He isn't hiding it at all. And there isn't really a big mystery of what is going on. He's orchestrating explosions. So what? He's pushing Europe towards war. So what? I never was sitting there confused. When they did any kind of big reveal, it was almost like, "Oh, was I supposed to be wondering about that?" Any level of suspense came from how Holmes was going to stop the guy, like how any superhero will stop any villain. There are some scenes where Ritchie will show Holmes figuring out something before the others, but it more often than not is in the midst of a fight - how can he effectively vanquish his foes by guessing their moves.
I am not sure if this is a problem with Ritchie's Holmes or an indictment of movies in general. It is pretty rare to have a good mystery any more in movies, where the viewer is kept in the dark and figuring things out with the hero. Sure, movies have twists in them. But the detective genre has almost been completely banished to television at this point. One of the last movies I saw that really held me the whole time and kept me in the dark - not due to confusion but due to forcing me to use my mind - was the first Mission: Impossible movie. Of course, a lot of people railed against that movie, saying it was too hard to figure out - which is exactly why I liked it. It is almost like we have abandoned the detective today - it is too easy with technology to do what these people used to work hard to do. Batman used to be known as The Detective. How often do you see that element any more? That is how I feel about Downey's Holmes. The detective element is played down in favor of action. He unravels things with action first, gimmicks second, and mind third.
That is really what makes the BBC version of Sherlock so riveting to me. It really is a throwback to the original Holmes books. It even takes those original stories and revamps them into modern situations. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock as the cerebral detective. He knows more than everyone else and he is more perceptive than everyone else. He believes everyone should see this and yield to his superior nature. So he is actually befuddled by the fact that people are offended by him. He doesn't shrug it off, it is a confusing reality to him. He reminds me of an elementary aged child who thinks you should be able to say anything you think without consequence. He can be truly awful to people - social skills are not as important as learning or solving the mystery. And his desire to solve the mystery is more out of fascination. If it strikes his fancy, he will jump at it. Otherwise, no matter how important the crime is, Holmes sees it as a waste of time. He has loyal friends, but he doesn't always see the reason for them. That is changing over time. However it is still painful to see him run roughshod over the local morgue worker, as she is standing there infatuated with him.
The show revels in the mystery. It sets the stage to where the viewer is completely in the dark as to the solution. There have beens six ninety minute episodes thus far and I haven't guessed the solution in the first hour of any of them. The intrigue is one thing to love, but the show is also humorous and well acted. Cumberbatch is great. I think he is a star on the rise. Last year he started in two Oscar nominated movies along with the show (War Horse, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy). He is currently filming the Star Trek sequel and will be the voice of the dragon in The Hobbit. It really is only a matter of time before he hits it very big. I think of him joining Michael Fassbender and Tom Hiddleton in the brainy darker leading man category. And speaking of The Hobbit, Martin Freeman, who will be starring as Bilbo Baggins in that film, does an amazing job as Dr Watson. He is exasperated with Holmes, but at the same time enthralled by him. He comes alive during the mysteries, all the while complaining of how he is being dragged into it. I think he is the perfect Watson for this version of Holmes. (Being perfectly fair, I think Jude Law does a great job with Watson in the movies. He is also the perfect version for Downey's Holmes.) In addition, Holmes' brother Mycroft is brilliant. He matches his brother's wits. And he is just as cold when it comes to people, but as a government official thinking of the higher good of country. I also like the police officers, especially Lestrade. They are like any modern police procedural team if they had a weirdo overstepping his bounds.
One thing that is a little different in the show is that the supernatural element is almost non existant. It is so grounded in the modern scientific world that the thought of something otherworldly being the culprit hardly enters the mind. The only episode that even ventured there was "Hound of the Baskervilles." If you read the books, many of them had elements of the supernatural hanging over them. It could be that in that era, that was a more common first guess. But I think it also was that some of the mysteries were so hard to fathom that the ludicrous became logical. The first Holmes movie did a good job of harkening back to those stories. The whole secret society and executed men coming back to life angle really felt like a Arthur Conan Doyle story.
The last comparison I will make is in the area of how the two properties address Professor Moriarty. This is the villain to end all villains. He can match Holmes' intellect. And he is evil to the core. It is hard to portray that without resorting to cartoonish depths. One offering properly did that; one failed. Surprisingly, the one that was successful was Ritchie's movie. His Moriarty was brilliant and respected. But he hid an evil viciousness and a criminal empire. The people in power didn't know he was a criminal since he hid things so well. The one problem I had was that he was portrayed very quickly as the baddie. We didn't have to wonder who was actually Moriarty or anything. But the role itself was more in line with the arch villain we know. The television show, on the other hand, did a good job hiding his identity. We were completely caught off guard when we realized who Moriarty was. But the excitement ended there. I hated every minute he was on screen until the last episode. The character was so over the top. Obviously he was mentally unstable, but he acted like a complete loon. It was almost that he was modeled after Heath Ledger's Joker instead of a plotting and manipulating genius. He was just full on nutso. I never liked the character, which is unfortunate for someone of that stature in a story.
Overall, I did enjoy Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. It was a fun action flick. Robert Downey Jr is at the point where he is playing various versions of his show biz persona in just about every film - kind of like how Alec Baldwin has merged into his Jack Donnaghy character from 30 Rock. If you like Downey, you will like Sherlock Holmes. (You will also like Iron Man.) But if you like Sherlock Holmes, you will love the television show Sherlock. That was a puzzler. Next up on the BluRay train? Mission:Impossible: Ghost Protocol.