Some celluloid interpretations of literature’s greatest detective that I have watched recently.
Directed by Barry Levinson and produced by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, the conceit here is that the dynamic duo of detection had their first adventure when they met as teenagers. Holmes, played by beanpole Nicholas Rowe, and Watson (Alan Cox as a Harry Potter clone) are thrown into each other’s company at a not so exclusive boarding school, a meeting of the outsider and the new kid on the block, soon becoming fast friends. When a number of men commit suicide, including his mentor, Holmes decides to investigate, despite the opposition of the school governors and the indifference of the police. Eventually he uncovers a link between the victims dating back to time spent in Egypt and an evil cult, who now appear to be operating in Victorian London. This is very much a Spielberg vehicle, heavy on both sentimentality and special effects, with echoes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in certain aspects of the end game. The bad guys kill by lethal dart that causes hallucinations, and I imagine the sfx team had a ball creating these for the screen, with stained glass illustrations and dragon shaped ornaments coming to life. The underlying motivation reminded me somewhat of Midsomer Murders, though that’s probably not something I should admit. Rowe and Cox, despite their unpromising appearances, do justice to the roles, with some nice comedic touches in their relationship, and the doomed love affair that wasn’t between Holmes and Elizabeth, his mentor’s niece, adds both romance and poignancy. Overall it’s an entertaining first outing for the dynamic duo and looks great on the screen, even if the story isn’t to be taken entirely seriously.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Twenty four years later and director Guy Ritchie picks up on Spielberg’s idea of reinventing Victorian London as a theme park with a wealth of thrills and spills, while Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law play Holmes and Watson as action heroes. The film opens with scenes reminiscent of a James Bond episode, as Holmes and Watson foil the plans of occultist Lord Blackwood (a strikingly sinister Mark Strong). But the return to domesticity and quiet of the following scenes isn’t to last, as Holmes finds himself operating outside the law while a resurrected Blackwood merges magic and science in a scheme to take control of the British Empire. It is a series of dazzling set pieces, each one bigger than the last, and all leading into the final life and death struggle between Holmes and Blackwood. Again, there is humour in the relationship between Holmes and Watson, with the latter casting a critical and wryly mocking eye over the actions of the former and Downey hamming it up as the great detective, in many ways playing Morecambe to Law’s Wise. The casting was a masterstroke, with both men appearing to have a whale of a time with the roles. Rachel McAdams as femme fatale Irene Adler adds an element of romance to the mix and also injects some duplicity, as we conjecture as to where her loyalties truly lie and who she is really working for (the criminal mastermind waiting in the wings). This film was pure fun, with charismatic stars, a convoluted plot, compelling villains, and every penny of the budget up there on the screen, the flamboyant style of director Guy Ritchie shining through in every scene. I loved it.
Sherlock Holmes (2010)
This apparently is what they call a “mockbuster”, made and released to cash in on the success of the Downey version (the porn industry has a cottage industry specialising in such productions I’m told by a friend). In the event it went straight to DVD, but the cunning plan wasn’t entirely unsuccessful as yours truly bought it online under the impression I was getting Downey. Talk about nasty surprises. Against the backdrop of the London Blitz, Watson reminisces about an old and previously unrecorded case. It starts with a giant octopus destroying a treasury ship, continues with a dinosaur attacking a man in Whitechapel, and then ends up with a mechanised version of Spring-Heeled Jack attempting to kill Queen Victoria and burn down Parliament. The scriptwriters had the ambition to go over the top, but not the money to see their ambitions through. What we get all seems rather unlikely and disjointed from a plot perspective, with perhaps the most nonsensical motivation for the actions of an evil mastermind to ever be recorded in the annals of crime fiction (I did mention that things went a tad over the top), while the identity of that mastermind is perhaps the only real surprise. The cast bring little vim to the proceedings, and lead Ben Syder is possibly the worst Sherlock Holmes ever, totally miscast with his reedy voice, unctuous personality, and diminutive physique, a Holmes that I found it impossible to believe in. Overall the film is disappointing and borderline risible. Perhaps not even borderline.
There was unfinished business at the end of the 2009 film. Director Guy Ritchie, with stars Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law return to wrap things up. Lurking in the background and pulling Blackwood’s strings was evil genius Professor Moriarty. This time around, with henchman Sebastian Moran, Moriarty is out to make a financial killing by wrecking a peace conference and plunging the world into war. It’s up to Holmes to stop him, but he faces an enemy who is not above exploiting those he cares about, which puts Watson and his newly acquired wife directly in the firing line. This is pretty much the same formula as before, though I’d say the plot was a little more simplistic. Again there are plenty of action set pieces, climaxing in a fight to the death between the two arch enemies after Moriarty’s numerous henchmen have been dealt with, while Watson gets his own personal nemesis in Moran. There are explosions galore and bare knuckle fights, with enough thrills and spills to convince the most hard core of action aficionados that Holmes and Watson are the true brew. The real joy of the film though remains in the chemistry between its two eminently likable and engaging stars – in some ways Holmes and Watson are the archetypal bromance. Downey is suave and dapper in even the most extreme of circumstances, despite the dishevelled air that he projects, while Law combines exasperation and serenity in a winning combination. Add in the humour, and I think with the possible exception of Brett and Hardwicke, these guys may be my favourite Holmes and Watson. Adding to the enjoyment in both Downey films are the tips of the hat to the Doyle canon and the use of Holmes’ deductive prowess, not just in solving mysteries but also seen in the way in which he calculates the outcome of each and every move in the fight scenes, adding an element akin to metafiction to the proceedings. Yes, I loved these films. They are, in spite of the essential silliness they contain, or perhaps because of it, pure and unadulterated fun, presenting us with a Holmes and Watson for the twenty first century.