Sherlock Holmes: The game is afoot
Downey, Ritchie and Law go back to the source for a first installation of the brawly, sexy Sherlock Holmes franchise
December 24, 2009
by Melora Koepke
One exception was the ’70s version of Holmes, brought to life by British author Nicholas Meyer in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (adapted as a film in ’76), which was framed as reminiscences of the sleuth by his loyal sidekick Dr. John Watson. It portrayed Holmes as a cocaine-addicted Freud follower whose fevered attempts at recovery and psychoanalysis were at issue more than his dogged pursuit of a criminal culprit (though there are mentions of his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, as the Napoleon of Crime -more on him later).
Sexing the sleuth
It seems, however, that Conan Doyle is to have the last word after all. Guy Ritchie’s franchise-ready Sherlock Holmes has Holmes as an unstable, cerebral action hero, played by an American: Robert Downey Jr., the thinking woman’s leading man, who’s also become a bankable Hollywood A-lister since his participation in two of last year’s blockbusters, Iron Man and Tropic Thunder.
Downey’s Holmes is hardly a relic of Victoriana – he’s a rakish, pugilistic martial-arts fighter with a fashion sense (no deerstalker) and a nose for danger – just as Conan Doyle intended him. Ritchie, whose laddish, literary Rocknrolla met with mixed reviews, is unabashed about Sherlock Holmes‘s potential for both supernova-ing his career and freshening up the dank Victorian petticoats of his beloved London.
"I wanted to leave small independent films, and this seemed the perfect segue for going from something that was small," says Ritchie, who has repeatedly described Sherlock Holmes as an "intellectual action man." "But I managed to hold on to an English identity and at the same time we had American muscle and American pockets… I wanted to make what they call a four-quadrant movie [a movie that plays to all four major demographic groups] and what they wanted were ‘Guy Ritchie-isms.’ I argued for the studio, and the studio argued on my behalf. It was like two people trying to get to the bar. Both are insisting they should pay… There was no ‘us and them.’"
Richie’s CGI-heavy caper is razor-sharp and fast enough to thrill adrenaline junkies, but is it smart enough to keep everyone else entertained? The script is loyal to Conan Doyle’s characterizations, almost to a fault (why does Holmes shoot bullets in the shape of VR into his wall? Is he commemorating Victoria Regina?), and portrays Holmes as a depressive man’s man with an extensive apothecary who does, indeed, champion logic over all. Except when it comes to his overclose friendship with his wingman Watson, who, contrary to type, is here played as a blue-eyed war vet/degenerate gambler by Jude Law.
As far as the mystery goes, it’s a little over the top. Though Moriarty and Holmes’ lady nemesis Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) make appearances, it’s mostly the Holmes and Watson show, with a central plot that’s a bit too Da Vinci Code to be taken seriously, involving a shadowy Aleister Crowley-like villain (Ritchie regular Mark Strong) who appears to possess death-giving powers that transcend the grave.
Still, though, Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes showcases the sleuth and his fair city as movies rarely have: The action zooms on with Ritchie’s signature jump-cuts and speed-varied action sequences (including an intense, not soon forgotten set-piece of Holmes in the boxing ring, dislocating a jaw in slow-mo) and a fantastic denouement amid the rafters of a half-built London Bridge. But the film really belongs to Downey, a brown-eyed strapping man in tweed and Beatles sunglasses who, it must be said, does sex up the sleuth.
Sleuthing around: Downey as Holmes
Though he famously threw the blow into the ocean in 2005 and has been clean since, Downey’s bad-boy charisma, and reputation as an obsessive-compulsive thinker (Ritchie says he "can’t keep up with him") casts him as an interesting, flawed Holmes – the kind we’d want to watch. Certainly, Downey’s demons have hounded him publicly like Baskerville dogs, none more so than at a press day in London at the Freemasons’ Hall, the location of Sherlock Holmes’s opening sequence.
"How did you reinvent your characters for this movie?" came the first question. "Robert, this movie has none of ‘The Seven-Per-Cent Solution‘ – was that your input not to be part of something that glamorized cocaine use?"
Downey, looking a bit stunned by the question, gave the assembly an "it’s on" kind of shrug.
"I loved The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, [though] it was never a high enough percentage for me," he says. "Kind of a weak, tepid solution. This is a PG-13 movie and even if it wasn’t, the idea is, if you go back to the source material, [Holmes is] never described as being some strung-out weirdo. Also, back in Victorian times, it was absolutely legal, acceptable. You could go down to your corner pharmacist and grab all that stuff, so we thought it would be irresponsible to not make reference to it and, so again, I think a lot of the flaming hoops we had to jump through doing Sherlock were: How do you take what comes from the source material and how do you amend it so that it’s accessible, and how do you not whitewash it?"
Beside him, Jude Law, who plays Watson as a comparably flawed character, describes the process as a rediscovery of the books he loved as a child.
"When I was asked to get involved, Robert was already set as Sherlock and Guy was directing," says Law. "I knew from then that it was going to be a different take on the older films. It fascinated me and obviously they were coming to me not to put on two stone and fall around, put my foot in waste paper baskets, but they were going to ask me to play Watson with a bit more edge."
Law, coincidentally, had played a stable boy in a TV version of Sherlock Holmes – it was his second acting role. Here, he plays Holmes’ central companion in a story that’s essentially a bromance for two confirmed 40-ish bachelors in a time when life expectancy wasn’t very high.
"It’s so funny to me, because usually I’m used to [media] saying, ‘Well you and so and so, this female, had this great chemistry,’ and now they’re talking about Jude and I like we should be doing romantic comedies together," says Downey. "But this film is not a comedy and it’s a love affair of sorts. It’s about what it’s about, but I think Holmes and Watson are aspects of all of us. I think that we knew when to yin and yang back and forth and we were just a good team, you know?"
Downey, whose British accent Ritchie called "almost perfect," had once before met with a great career moment in the U.K., when he played the title role in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, which earned him an Oscar nomination. But Holmes is the literary avatar to all manner of obsessive fandom, as evidenced by a night-before-screening visit to a London pub called the Sherlock Holmes, which contained, in an upstairs room, a detailed shrine to the detective.
The onus is on Downey now to be smart, tough, sexy and charismatic enough to pull off the sleuth of sleuths while also proving a match for the recondite amateurs of all things Holmesian and for the shadowy figure of Moriarty, his nemesis, who is only hinted at in this first installation (rumour has it that the role may be played by Brad Pitt.) But Downey, true to form, is cavalier about the pressures of the role, and of his newfound identity as box-office ironman and all-around centre of attention.
"Scared? I don’t get scared anymore," he says. "I just get busy."