Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Monday, December 19, 2011

Watson, The Game Is Afoot

Once again, the great detective returns to the silver screen, with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law reprising their roles as Holmes and Watson after the success of Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, director Guy Ritchie returns, and as I'll explain, that's not a very good thing at all. It may be possible that the Guy Ritchie Fan Club may want my head on a pike by the time I'm done with this review.

The first go-around for the franchise saw Holmes spending as much time in action as he was in deducing. Gone was the familiar deer skin cap of so many previous adaptations. Remaining in place was the notion that as brilliant a detective as he might be, Holmes is socially inept at the best of times. His partner Watson routinely found himself annoyed by Sherlock's eccentricities, to the point where he moved his medical practices out of 221B Baker and planned to get married.

The follow-up has Watson getting ready for marriage to his fiancee Mary (Kelly Reilly), but things go quickly awry with the arrival of Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). For those of us who've read the original works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, we're already familiar with Moriarty, seeing as how he's the great nemesis, the Napoleon of Crime.  Moriarty heads up a secret plot to drive the great powers into war, masterminding bombings and assassination twenty years before the Great War. He'd profit handsomely too, given that this Moriarty is heavily into the munitions industry.

Holmes and Watson pursue the trail across Europe, running across Sherlock's brother Mycroft along the way (you may want to avert your eyes for a Stephen Fry scene... consider yourselves warned. No, I won't explain.) Rachel McAdams briefly reprises her role as Irene Adler from the first film. And the detectives cross paths with a gypsy named Simza (Noomi Rapace, from the Swedish versions of those The Girl Who... adaptations. Complete aside: did Stieg Larsson lose a bet that required him to start every book title the same bloody way?).

The antagonism between Holmes and Moriarty is part action thriller duel, part verbal jousting. Moriarty comes across, perhaps, at times, like a Bond villain, but that's because he's being placed into a modern action film in period dress and setting. Harris, a son of the late Richard Harris, comes from good acting stock, and plays the role well. Though this Moriarty isn't quite the authentic version we see in the books, he's got an understated air to him, and a suitable menacing charm. I'd like to see more of Harris at work in other roles.

Downey and Law return to their roles as if they never left, and play as well as the material allows. Their bantering and bickering throughout feel true to what they've done before with these characters. I like Law's sheer exasperation at Holmes. And I enjoy that unlike other adaptations of the character, Watson doesn't come across as perpetually confused about everything. Downey continues to play Holmes as a mixture of the detective and fighter, utterly incapable of understanding social boundaries and good manners. He seems to stand apart from it all, taking in what he sees, and then acts upon his conclusions.

So, I've explained the good in the film... now it's time for what doesn't work nearly as well. There is a great deal of attention given over to detail, to making things look like a Victorian era world, which is a credit to the production crew. The problem is that this sort of detail gets rushed through, because the whole film is a modern action thriller passing itself off as a period piece. Hence the explosions, gunfire, and fast paced action sequences. It's too much to expect a straight forward adaptation of a Holmes tale, it seems.

That fast pace I've mentioned and the things that I didn't like about the film, can be placed squarely at the feet of the individual responsible for them: director Guy Ritchie (I told you his return wasn't a good thing). The things that I didn't like in the first film get repeated here. The visualization before Holmes does something sequences, so that we're getting the same scene twice. The slow-down camera trick. The speed-up camera trick. These were annoying in the first film, and don't work a second time around. 

For awhile we've been seeing the camera-slow-down trick by editors in films. Done in moderation, this, and the speed-up trick, are acceptable. It seems that they were made popular because of The Matrix, which dealt, of course, with reality not being what the characters thought it was. In a late 19th century setting, these kind of tricks just come off as annoying and pretentious. 

It got me to think about Ritchie himself, and his pedigree as a director. Actually, there's not a lot there to recommend. He's not a good director, but he thinks he is. He thinks he's an auteur, and no doubt he has plenty of people around him telling him that, saying he's hip and relevent. And so he keeps playing with the same gimmicks in editing and directing, staying true to himself, failing utterly at one of the cornerstones of being a good director: knowing how to tell a story. I have much the same complaint about Quentin Tarentino, incidentally.

I've wondered through these two films what the films would be like in the hands of a more capable director. Someone who doesn't have Entertainment Tonight on speed dial. Someone who takes the craft seriously. Someone who's not trying to mash an action thriller into a genre that needs, from time to time, quiet moments for a detective to consider the case before him. Someone who didn't have the deplorably bad judgment to marry Madonna, in other words. That alone should disqualify Guy from ever working on a film again.

No doubt the film will make lots of money, and there will be another followup. I'd like to hope that Guy steps aside, but I doubt it.

Maybe the next film can be from the dog's point of view.


  1. From the dog's POV...I like that idea, actually!

    I see what you meant, you couldn't get by with claiming Madonna paid you to write this, since you harpooned her, too.

    A shame, because I really like Robert Downey Jr. Oh, well...I guess I'll just have to wait for The Avengers next year....

  2. It's entertaining enough. If you liked the first film, and can put up with Ritchies' idiotic camera tricks, it's worth seeing. Pretty much the same things right and wrong with the first film repeat themselves here.

  3. I think all of your qualms are validated, William. However they're still two of my favorite movies from the last few years--just on entertainment value alone.

    I felt the first one, while not perfect, had 'good enough' potential for a new series with characters I really enjoy. I'll admit that I don't think the second really built on anything from the first, and rather just repeated the things that were okay with the first. (If that makes sense.) That aside, I still enjoyed it, but totally agree with you that it should/could be much more.

    I also agree that the director has a lot to do with the franchise not moving from 'good, entertaining film' into great movie territory.

    Nice review!


  4. That should be 'valid', not validated. But it might work either way. :)

  5. Movie...? What movie...? I would just go to see it for Mr. Downey, Jr...

    I liked him in the first movie...but, you're right about the camera tricks...they don't quite work with the time period. But, he's hot to look at, so I'd watch it...and, probably like it...just for him. I know, I'm shallow...

  6. I have enjoyed both films, EJ. I think it's on the strength of the performances that I can overlook the things that annoy me.

    One of the names that came to mind for directing this... I wonder what Terry Gilliam would do with a Holmes film.

  7. Robert Downey and Jude Law could probably make the phone book seem interesting and fun. Good thing for Guy Ritchie I guess! Great review!

  8. I just saw it last night! I was a bit annoyed by the slow-down, speed up crap. It was so overdone this time, and all of the quick scene flashes with bright lights gave me a migraine. And yes, the modern action overshadowed the period feel and the old-fashioned detective nature of the story. But hey, it was still awesome. Robert Downer Jr and Jude Law or so amazing as these characters.

  9. It seemed to me like Downey was just treading water with the first film. It didn't give me the urge to see another, and like you said, Ritchie is not the best director in the world.

  10. I didn't see the first film, because I didn't like the idea of mystical stuff in a Holmes movie--his powers of deduction are mystical enough. I still like Jeremy Brett as Holmes.

  11. nice idea, thanks for sharing...

  12. I'll be doing a review for the Mission Impossible sequel before the weekend... I haven't seen it yet, though it's safe to say that Tom Cruise fans might want my head on a pike for it too...

  13. @Karla: as it goes, the whole mystical element in the first film is exposed by Holmes as smoke and mirrors, mere trickery.

  14. Just dropped by to say, have a Happy Christmas and Healthy 2012,
    Thanks for your support during 2011. X

  15. I couldn't agree more. I found the action in the first movie too fast-paced and too over-the-top. Honestly, during the action sequences, my brain had to struggle to comprehend what my eyes were seeing (but that could just be me).

  16. A very balanced review, thank you! I'd really like to see the second film in spite of your reservations. I enjoyed the first film a lot, and thought the slowed down repeat of scenes worked well, allowing me to see, for example, how Holmes had managed to get out of the window so fast and in disguise to intercept the carriage. Each to his own, I guess!


Comments and opinions always welcome. If you're a spammer, your messages aren't going to last long here, even if they do make it past the spam filters. Keep it up with the spam, and I'll send Dick Cheney after you.