***½/**** Image B+ Sound A+ Extras B
starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong
screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg
directed by Guy Ritchie
by Walter Chaw On page 31 of the first book of Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns, there's a sequence in which Batman takes a few seconds to assess the seven options he has to either kill, disarm, or cripple his quarry whilst crouched in a darkened stairwell. That last option, Miller informs his reader, hurts, and I thought of this--the moment as a kid I gave myself over to the hard noir of The Dark Knight Returns--during the opening of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes as the exact analog for our Holmes (a mesmerizing Robert Downey Jr.) calculating the damage he's about to do to an antagonist. The film that follows is akin to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, with the same weaknesses (pacing in a saggy middle) but the same considerable strengths as well as it rescues Holmes from the lovely yet stuffy Rathbone/Bruce serials and reintroduces the detective as the man capable of bending an iron poker with his bare hands ("The Adventure of the Speckled Band")--the man with a cocaine (the familiar "seven percent solution" is a solution of Bolivian marching powder, of course) and intravenous morphine habit ("The Sign of the Four"*) he indulges to fend off bouts of depression, having suffered one ("The Adventure of the Reigate Squire"), possibly two ("The Adventure of the Devil's Foot") nervous breakdowns. Holmes, in other words, is a fucking mess and a bit of a badass, and this doesn't scratch the surface of his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law), a veteran of a brutal Afghan campaign that's left him with shrapnel in his shoulder.
What Ritchie's accomplished is the dual feat of resurrecting both his career as a pulp stylist (London's Tarantino--you could be called worse) and Holmes as a vital figure in the modern conversation. As Victoriana, it's a fabbo companion piece to The Young Victoria (and, in a way, to the Romanticist swoon of Jane Campion's ravishing Bright Star), a steampunk fetishist's dreamscape that shows in every facet of its disgusting, filthy recreation of the Industrial Revolution more purposeful creativity than any thirty-million dollar chunk of Avatar. The squalor is palpable as Holmes snips rats' tails, probes unrefrigerated corpses, and saves his lovely rival Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) from a waterside slaughterhouse. Sherlock Holmes is a wonderful bit of fanboyism, too, its script-by-committee somehow demonstrating a remarkable respect for lore, from the appearance of Adler's photo as a prized-possession in Holmes's study to honourable depictions of Watson's future-wife Mary (Kelly Reilly), to innumerable references to and hints at Holmes's past and future adventures. It's respectful of its source, similar to J.J. Abrams's awesome Star Trek reboot--but like that film, it's accessible to more than the core constituency. And again like Batman Begins, not only is the front-and-centre villain, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a vaguely-supernatural terrorist intent on wreaking havoc in Parliament and, eventually, the Colonies, there is, too, a tantalizing suggestion that should Sherlock Holmes start a franchise, the villain next time around will be archrival Professor Moriarty. It's pretty great.
Consider a small moment right after Holmes has done his divining trick on his friend's beloved to disastrous results--how he, digging into his now-solo repast, subtly betrays his loneliness and a tragic awareness, perhaps, of his essential strangeness. Credit Downey Jr. for understanding a junkie's alienation and having the talent to convey a great depth of sadness, body and soul. I love how Ritchie intercuts this with a scene in a fighting pit where Holmes is allowed to re-establish his equilibrium physically, yes, but also in terms of a sense of honour he's sullied at the expense of the only person in the world who voluntarily suffers him. Find here, too, the audacity of Ritchie, lost since the "splashdown" fight sequence in Snatch. Which is not to say that stuff like Revolver and RocknRolla were not audacious, but to say that in Sherlock Holmes, Ritchie's visual flourishes are brandished with a keen narrative purpose.
The biggest shock, though, is Ritchie's reserve. He spends an extraordinary amount of time developing his scenario and, once Holmes reveals his solution at the end, demonstrates that he's played fair with us, for the most part, throughout. I felt the way at the end of Sherlock Holmes the way I used to feel when first reading Conan Doyle's stories: that all the signs were there if only I were as adept at ratiocination as the great detective. As Holmes is long one of my favourite literary characters, I confess to being filled with something very much like delight by a picture that has the sense to know that Holmes is a sexy motherfucker--a rock star who does drugs, seduces chicks with his prodigious (and unique) talents, wins fights, and spits at police. He's a Dickensian Batman, and if Ritchie did indeed use Nolan's redux as a template, he couldn't have chosen a cannier one. Now if we can just get Guillermo Del Toro back on his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness", well, I'll be a pig in slop.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner brings Sherlock Holmes to Blu-ray in a handsome if unexceptional 1.78:1, 1080p transfer. (Disregard the packaging claim of 1.85:1.) Certainly, the image is detailed, features rich blacks, and has a pleasing, filmlike tactility. On the flipside, there's a telltale softness to shots heavily reliant on CGI, that dense black level doesn't really exhibit a lot of range, and the grain sometimes looks frozen in place, particularly when the depth of field is shallow enough to throw the background completely out of focus. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, on the other hand, comes without caveats--this is an impeccable rendering of a phenomenally discrete mix. When Lord Blackwood ambushes Holmes, Watson, and Irene at the docks, it makes no sense that his disembodied voice swiftly pans around the viewer in 360° motions and sounds like it's stemming from the bowels of the earth, but it's pure home-theatre bliss just the same. Early in the film, as Watson tries to placate his new landlord while Holmes tests out a homemade silencer, try not to sit up with a start every time the gun goes off in one of the rear speakers. Meanwhile, the LFE channel ransacks the subwoofer with subterranean bass that miraculously never sounds muddy, though on a related note I'd play this a notch or two below reference level to avoid overwhelming the dialogue with the rest of the soundtrack.
Extras include one of those "Maximum Movie Mode" PIP things I can't watch because my player is ancient. I'll be honest with you: it's this very get-out-of-jail-free card that's preventing me from upgrading to a BonusView-capable deck, and there hasn't been a title yet that's made me feel left out. The disc does console us early adopters in the form of "focus points," eight 3-5-minute featurettes devoted to specific aspects of the production and titled as follows: "Drawbridges & Doilies: Designing a Late Victorian London," "Not a Deerstalker Cap in Sight," "BaRitsu: A Tutorial," "Elementary English: Perfecting Sherlock's Accent," "The One That Got Away," "Powers of Observation & Deduction," "The Sherlockians," and "Future Past." While this table of contents pretty much sums up the content proper, I always enjoy seeing Robert Downey Jr.'s hot producer wife and appreciated the wisdom of costume designer Jenny Beavan, who rationalizes the absurd choice to attire glorified pickpocket Irene in flashy clothes by basically saying that adhering to logic in this instance wouldn't be cinematic. For what it's worth, "The Sherlockians" refers to the Baker St. Irregulars, who like any fanboy/girl contingent don't seem to engage with the work in question so much as metastasize it. A separate making-of, "Sherlock Holmes: Reinvented" (14 mins.), effectively recaps the focus points and continues to belabour a passing mention of martial arts in Conan Doyle's writing. Still, props to Downey Jr. on a rockin' Bruce Lee torso sculpted, we learn, by years of training in the Wing Chun method of kung fu. (No, seriously.) Previews for Digital Copy technology, the Clint Eastwood commemorative box set (a DVD exclusive, alas), and Invictus cue up on startup. All this supplementary material is in HD; a Digital Copy of Sherlock Holmes is included on a DVD inside the keepcase. Originally published: March 28, 2010.
*"Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction."--The Sign of the Four return