Monday, December 28, 2009

Sherlock Holmes Gets an Athletic Makeover

I became a fan of Sherlock Holmes in the eighth grade when I read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” I was hooked. Youthful passions pass, replaced by other passions that also fade, and then you grow up and suddenly there’s job, marriage, mortgage, kids and schools all over again. But Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation never relaxed its grip on me.

Sherlock Holmes was the epitome of deductive reasoning and bravery. Every few years I re-read all 56 short stories and 4 novellas and marvel at how Conan Doyle kept Holmes so fresh and contemporary, even though the setting was London of the 1880s.

Certainly the author’s skill with words was a factor, as this famous dialogue between a police inspector and Holmes shows in “Silver Blaze“:

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

"That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

But it was the character of the super-sleuth that made the stories so enjoyable: single-minded focus, eccentric, brilliant, always one step ahead of the most cunning of criminals, and in no small measure, endearingly crazy. (Thinking about Holmes always brings another real-life character to mind: the late great physicist Richard Feynman, also a supreme magician of the intellect whose diversions included bongo playing and safecracking.)

Which was why I so looked forward to Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as his sidekick, Dr. Watson. I wasn’t disappointed, although the special effects and relentless fight scenes were somewhat jarring.

One reason why Holmes endures is his malleability. He may be confined to 19th-century London, but his fight against evil transcends time. Downey gives Holmes an athletic makeover without diminishing his eccentricity. We know of his fondness for prize-fighting from the stories. Here, we get a slow-motion close-up of how tough and analytic Holmes can be in the ring. His mind is, as always, lightning fast, whether in anticipating his quarry’s next move or in putting people in their proper places. When inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard informs Holmes that in another life he would have made a fine criminal, Holmes responds with, “In another life you would have made a fine police inspector.”

But the transformation of Watson is equally dramatic. No longer a slow-witted, awestruck companion, Watson is impatient with Holmes’ air of superiority and gives as well as he takes. When Holmes tries to pry open the door of a suspect’s home with some fancy tools, Watson just kicks it open. When Holmes goes too far with an experiment on his own body and implores for help, Watson takes his time and, at the last moment, rescues his friend. Their vigorous verbal jousting is a key to the film's appeal.

The story itself has shades of Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons), with secret organizations plotting to take over the world. The villain, Blackwood (Mark Strong), has an uncanny resemblance to the late Jeremy Brett, whose 41 TV-films portraying Holmes over a decade brought the detective closer to the public than ever before.

The two “M”s are present as well: Mycroft Holmes and Professor James Moriarty. Mycroft is only spoken of, and we are left to wonder about this enigmatic sibling. According to Sherlock (The Greek Interpreter), his older brother is even more brilliant than him but his undoing is that he is a sloth. He has stamina only for intellectual calisthenics, none for action. In other words, Mycroft Holmes is the ideal consultant,

Without Moriarty, of course, Holmes cannot achieve greatness. Moriarty is his match, his ultimate nemesis. As the mysterious Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) informs Holmes, “he is as intelligent as you are but infinitely more devious.” Naturally, Holmes begs to differ.

In the end, all the stuff about returning from beyond the grave, the sorcery and the supernatural happenings turn out to be hocus-pocus. Holmes’ explanations are, well, elementary. But he also discovers that the mastermind behind the diabolical plot is none other than Moriarty himself. Unless he takes him on, Holmes has barely scratched the surface.

Clearly, this movie is “To Be Continued.” Look for a sequel. My hope is that director Guy Ritchie will weave a part of Holmes’ life as a bee-keeper in Sussex Downs (1903-04) into his sequel(s), in which the great man once again jumps into the fray and takes on whoever wants to "remake the world." Can you imagine Holmes retiring? I cannot. "Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!"

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