Like many, I lost interest in Guy Ritchie in 2002, the year his remake of Swept Away – starring his then-wife, Madonna – hit screens. That said, I’ve not seen said film and have only seen parts of the two films (Revolver and Rocknrolla) he’s directed since 2002. So, no, I can’t bash the guy. I’ve heard that Revolver is awful and Rocknrolla is tolerable from very reliable sources. In fact, none of my Film Friends have said a single good thing about any of the man’s work since 2000’s Snatch.
But who cares. Very few people who go to Ritchie’s latest film, Sherlock Holmes, will be going to the theater because they’re a Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fan. They’ll be going for one of the following reasons: 1) Robert Downey, Jr. – the guy is really, really fucking hot right now; 2) they read Holmes books or have watched Holmes films or TV programs in the past and count themselves a fan of the character; or 3) the everywhere-you-look Christmastime promotion got to them. Me, I went because I’ve already seen everything else out on my local screens that I wanted to see. That, and, even more so, I heard that the full trailer for my most anticipated film of 2010, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, was set to premier before the film. Nolan is always reason enough.
(Side note: Inception looks very promising. I imagine it won’t be long until we’re listing Nolan among the all-time greats. No one in recent memory has simultaneously worked at the top of the creative and commercial food chain. His films feel like miracles; I don’t expect Inception will be any different.)
Here’s the thing about me and Holmes: I don’t know an incredible amount about the character. In fact, I know almost nothing. I’ve not read the books or short stories, I’ve not watched the television series and I’ve not watched the films. For this viewer, this was problem number one. Now, I could argue that, if you’re going to make a blockbuster, by design, you need to make it for the masses. Should I really feel lost at a pop corn flick that nabs the big Christmas Day release slot? (Is this a pop corn flick? Shut up, it fucking is a popcorn flick.) My inner art star has me applauding Ritchie & Co. for not pandering to the masses … but, damn, it would’ve been nice to have understood everything a little better. So, yes, maybe that is a problem.
But the film does work as entertainment. It works because there are healthy doses of kicking and running and punching and shooting spread throughout. Nothing too inventive (though it does try), but for most, I’d assume, the action was successful. Not Ironman successful, but, from what I’ve read, people enjoy the movie for the faster scenes. Didn’t do much for me. I was elsewhere engaged.
For me, this film was all about two things: beautiful set designs and beautiful people. I’ll start with the set design.
Some of the best I’ve seen in a good while and filmed with all the latest, greatest technology. Lots of CGI, I’d imagine, but not in a way that you can ever even be sure that it’s CGI (see Alex Proyas’ recent sci-fi thriller, Knowing, for an example of the opposite approach). The cityscapes are brilliant. Every building Holmes and Watson find themselves in is meticulously designed and filmed. Every road they pass down is a marvel. I won’t go into too much detail, save for to say that there’s always almost too much to look at and drool over. The set pieces are amazing works of art.
Beautiful people. Downey, Jr., for one, is fun to stare at. This works for me because I especially love faces, and Holmes has a great one. Downey, Jr. has some serious acting chops, we all know that by now. He knows how to move every muscle on his face in just the right way at just the right moment; that he has a unique-yet-universally-handsome look is the cherry on top. But Downey, Jr. is No. 2 on my Look At List in this film. Rachael McAdams, who I don’t think much of as an actor and never cared to make note of in the past, is amazing to look at here.
Amazing. She always has been a beautiful girl, but this is her new masterpiece. Ritchie knows what he has in McAdams and, unlike others who have filmed her, he flaunts it in the same way directors used to hold the camera on Natalie Wood and even Debra Winger (who were both conventionally beautiful, but also interesting looking, actors, same as McAdams). There are a number of lengthy close ups of McAdams’ face, which is not so much Hollywood beautiful (think Kate Beckinsale) here as it is interesting. She’s a pretty girl, sure, but there’s more to it. Like Downey, Jr., she’s unique-yet-universally-beautiful. I’d likely have left the film early had I not had her to gawk at.
Back to the real shit. The movie.
Meh. It’s too good in certain areas for me to rally against, but it really just doesn’t hit. Most of the many pieces of this blockbuster do work and even exceed expectations. Good acting; good editing; great cinematography; cinematic beauty everywhere. But the storytelling is flat. The big moments seem aimed at children and action fans – not unlike, say the Pirates films or even the Transformers films. I’m a man. An adult. I like my big moments to be poetic, thoughtful, inventive, emotional or mysterious. Any of those will do. Sherlock offers none of these things.
As the film ends all the questions are wrapped up quickly in a way that doesn’t impress, but rather, annoys. In recapping and explaining all the film’s many mysteries, Ritchie and his writers highlight their biggest problem: lazy storytelling. None of these many mysteries were sold when they initially happened in the film. Ritchie was too interested in his sets and fights and chases to really pin us to our seats. For example, we should’ve been wondering WHY the explosions were happening for no reason … but we weren’t, because, as they were happening, we were chomping our corn and “ewwing” and “awwing” at the big-budget marvel on screen. The filmmakers needed to tell us that this bit was something we should’ve questioned – and that’s just bad storytelling.
But, again, maybe I’m just not used to the Holmes brand of plot design. Also, as the film ends there’s an incredibly blatant set-up for a sequel that no doubt left any viewer with a brain feeling insulted. To me, the focus on action took away from what begged – and promised – to be high brow storytelling. A shame, considering how much else the film had going for it.
Maybe I’ll go watch Memento and The Prestige. Now that’s good, thoughtful storytelling.