26 December 2009

First Impressions: Surecock Holmes

A fitting end to this decade and our intro to the next is Surecock Holmes (2009). This is an extremely fun movie with tons of playful 19th-Century action, nefarious Imperialist plots, secret societies and Robert Downey Jr giving his best non-blackface performance in years. The acting and casting is spot-on (although I still don't belive Rachel McAdams in this mature of a role yet), and the plot in general makes sense from one scene to another. I sadly realise that in a post-Transformers world this has become the standard for action fare, that is, a movie becomes good simply if motivations and sequences make sense. In this sense, Sherlock is a great film. Let's continue now a bit deeper, as with all my First Impressions, Spoilers abound and I don't care who reads 'em:

First of all, this was a good movie, but I'm careful not to call it a great one. This reminds me of Star Trek (2009). Star Trek wasn't really a great movie, it certainly has its share of pretty serious flaws (ie how the fuck did Kirk find Spock on Hoth) and deserves no place on this years Best-Of Lists (maybe it does, have you seen the movies this year?). I feel again, simply with a year where the biggest other action fares are Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (2009) that when suddenly a big blockbuster movie has a congruent plot it's one of the greatest movies of all time. This is simply untrue. Sherlock Holmes by its end is formulaic and has little to no innovation on the genre. Is it fun? Sure. It's a lock (ho ho), but neither it nor Star Trek are ultimately that great.

Let's start with the directing. I'll give Guy a lot of credit here in streamlining a movie that could have easily favoured style over substance (looking at you, Zack's Watchmen [2009]) based on his previous directorial efforts (Snatch [2000], RockNRolla [2008]). The super-slowmo creeps in occasionally, but it's almost always to good purpose. The first being Holmes planning on his physical attacks in a best, most effective way to incapacitate an opponent, and then performing said attacks in real-time. This part was actually pretty neat. The sequence is done twice to perfection, I almost would have liked a third time and a Holmes screw up, but the essential message of the film seems to be that Holmes DOES NOT SCREW UP, so I suppose that fits with the theme. The second slowmo is during a big explosion, which is pretty sweet and presents this very real threat of fiery death. Very thrilling to behold.

Let's get right to the core of this piece now, namely, Downey Fucking Junior. I am astounded by this man's current ability to just carry any film he's starring in. He has gotten to a point where he is nailing the devilishly charming smart-alec hero with a heart of gold. You can guess that this will very soon border on parody (for a prior example of this acting phenomenon see Bruce Willis' development into the gruff hungover cop. In five years Downey will play only wry smart-alecks). In Downey's hands Holmes is basically a 19th-Century Tony Stark, but I find I don't have much problem with that. Unparalleled genius in his field, horrendous personal relationships and generally an asshole to all around him. Downey can sell the intellectualism as well as assholery so well however, its a rare actor that could pull of this role.

I enjoyed how this movie wasn't really a "re-boot" or "first adventure" or any other bullshit that it could have easily slipped into. Guy trusts that the audience is generally familiar with a character that has been around for over a Century and instead places us towards the possible end of Holmes and Watson's professional relationship. This along with the "thrown-in" treatment of the opening scenes serves to trust and respect the audience, which I also enjoyed. I'll also mention here the wonderful Jude performance, stark in contrast to Downey's loose, almost spaced-out Holmes.

There were a few themes I noticed that are pretty sweet. Where the story is pretty thin, the characters are strong, and the film is about who Watson and Holmes are more than anything else. There is this sense of intellectual loneliness about Holmes that Downey really sells. You can see this best at the dinner scene, where he is able to ruthlessly analyze Jude Law's fiancée, to which she gets pissed and throws wine in his face. He never really knows when to turn his brain off (also see Nicholas Angel in Hot Fuzz [2007] yes I went there). There's this place for Holmes at the top of London's intellectual community, and you really get a sense of his frustration with incompetant police chiefs and other members of the Lordship who can't keep up with him. It's tough to be the brightest person in the room, able to see what's wrong with everything else. Holmes doesn't really get a lot of enjoyment out of human interaction, evident from his rare personal relationships and obsession instead with experiments, study and analysis. These kinds of themes are present in a lot of Simpsons episodes (Guess with which character! See "Lisa the Vegetarian" [S7;E5] and "Lisa the Simpson" [S9;E17]). It's a pretty interesting idea.

Spawning off this, there is a bit of debate between the forever battle between Logic and Magic. This is a common Comic Element (see Superman's little-known vulnerability to the inherently chaotic effects of Magic). It's also interesting me to compare to Downey's other major franchise character, Iron Man, whose chief Comic villain is the Mandarin. The Mandarin was set-up precisely to be an adept user of magic that would clash with Tony Stark's faith in machines and techology. This same shit is in Venture Bros, a story arc in New Avengers, the pop culture list is endless. Thus it should be expected that the great logical Holmes should find his villain in the Dark Sorcerer Lord Blackwood. I was relieved at the end that most all of Blackwood's sorcery was reasoned, I think it preserves Holmes' world as one that abides by Holmes rules. This is the same way that the Seinfield universe must abide by Jerry's rules, not the drama of villain Newman. Have I made enough allusions yet?

I think this movie fell apart towards the end. While the opening respects the audience, the ending shameless sets us up a sequel, classic blueballs. It is actually identical to Batman Begins (2005) in how the minor villain is done away with while the iconic one (Moriarty) is set-up with his own sinister intro. Holmes is a fine imitator, but I'll take innovation over imitation. Also the end credits had the exact same principle as Tropic Thunder (2008), which I thought had one of the best of the decade. Again, it's some shameless imitation over innovation. If you've seen Holmes recently, keep that in your mind and then watch this video. It's an uncanny similarity and also amusing that Tropc Thunder looks and is coordinated better.

But with all this in the can, I think it's safe to say that Holmes will carry us into the Tweens well. The Downey Decade is officially underway, and although the plot and structure of Holmes is a mere facisimile of films like Batman Begins, I believe the sardonic and assholish yet incredibly competent hero as typified by Downey is here to stay. Keep watching, my fellow filmlovers, over the next ten years and we will see. Here's to the epic Robert Downey, Jr Lumberjack movie (which you know is a role he can pull off) that will outgross Titanic (1997) by the year 2016. Can't wait.

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