After Mel Gibson’s musclebound Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, it should surprise no one that Guy Richie gives us a similar take on the only slightly less revered character of Sherlock Holmes. However, while we expect Christ to be seen shirtless, Richie’s shirtless Victorian hero comes as a bit of a shock. But then, there is much that is surprising in this modernized Holmes film. As producer Susan Downey (Yes, his wife) says in the DVD featurette Sherlock Holmes Reinvented, “This is not your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes.” Indeed it is not. But I’m afraid that this is much like saying that the violin Holmes plays in the film is not your grandfather’s Stradivarius; it doesn’t say that it is better—just different. While this film is different from all of your grandfather’s films—Sherlock or not—it is quite similar to all the films produced by Joel Silver (who produced this film) or Jerry Bruckheimer. And perhaps this is why Sherlock Holmes (2009) is such a forgettable film.
I don’t begrudge any generation its own take on a classic. This is one of the reasons that I think that Orson Welles’ Don Quixote project was so great. In it, Quixote and Sancho Panza are anachronisms: 17th century characters in the modern world. In one scene Don Quixote mistakes a motor-scooter for some kind of alien beast. In another, he attacks a movie screen. But that is great film making—or at least its attempt. Despite its makers’ protestations to the contrary, Sherlock Holmes uses the classic eponymous stories almost exclusively for the name. With minor tweaks, the screenplay could have boasted original characters set in modern America, or 18th century Africa for that matter. After all, combining a brilliant but troubled man with an average but stable friend in a buddy picture is no more uncommon than a villain who wants to rule the world—both of which are shamelessly on display in this film.
Not surprisingly, the film gets some things simply wrong in its attempts to modernize its supposed source material. A particularly annoying example of this is how Sherlock Holmes deals with the original character’s habit of injecting cocaine and morphine. The only drug reference here (except, of course, for the large amount of drinking done, because, of course, alcohol isn’t a real drug) is Watson’s chastising Holmes for drinking a drug used for performing eye surgery—an act surely far more dangerous than the injection of pharmaceutical cocaine and morphine. Instead, we see Holmes doing things like getting into fist fights with men twice his size. The point being that Holmes’ use of drugs that the modern mind equates to rape and murder (based upon the criminal penalties we cheerfully accept) must be a sign of his self-destructiveness. In the original stories, however, this is not the case. Holmes used these drugs out of boredom—just as do many if not most modern users. My grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes was far more straight forward. At the end of 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Basil Rathbone, as Holmes, ends the film by saying, ” Watson: the needle!” No dancing around the issue there.
What makes Sherlock Holmes so forgettable is unclear to me, however. Due to my habit of going to watch new releases with my brother, I see a lot of films very much like this one. Yet I do not forget them. I can tell you roughly what Iron Man 2 or RED were about. And yet, I got over half-way through watching Sherlock Holmes before I realized that I had seen it before. Up to that point, I thought that I just knew what was going to happen next. This is very common—with the occasional exception, like The Sixth Sense—I can usually give you a pretty good picture of acts two and three after watching act one of a modern American movie. In Sherlock Holmes, it was only when I saw the villain kill his father that I knew: I had seen that bathtub before!
I still cannot remember where or when I saw the movie, but there is no doubt that I did. It hardly matters, and it certainly isn’t important. What is important is why I should have completely blocked out having seen it. My working theory is that the film itself is utterly forgettable. It is more or less Iron Man 2 or Batman and Robin without the silly costumes to make it stand out. Sherlock Holmes is a by-the-numbers film that does have the advantage over most other films (good and bad) of literally killing a couple of hours. If you want this experience, however, you are best to put up a sign somewhere that you can’t miss, which says something along the lines of, “Sherlock Holmes already killed two hours; mission accomplished!”