Sherlock Holmes: Action Star?

My main intellectual activity today was to rotate curves around various axes, and then explain how to find the volumes of the solids that resulted. Doesn’t put me in the mood for heavy, thought-provoking blogging. But I did recently come across this interesting bit of movie news. Why am I not optimistic?

For more than 100 years, Sherlock Holmes has been the world’s foremost detective mind; a profound genius capable of unlocking even the most intricate mysteries. So how would he unravel this minor puzzle: A man known for his brain is about to showcase his brawn?

How do we know? Elementary: It’s a Guy Ritchie movie. Guy Ritchie is known for his gritty crime dramas. Guy Ritchie cast action star of the day Robert Downey Jr. in the titular role. It’s a simple deduction, really.

Well, actually, we just asked him.

“They never seem to manifest that [element] in some of the earlier productions they’ve done of ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ ” Ritchie said of what would separate his upcoming reinterpretation of the character from earlier versions. “We’re trying to bring a completely contemporary and entertaining perspective on an intellectual action hero true to his origins where he was more of an action guy originally.”

“It’s like James Bond in 1891,” producer Joel Silver added. “Nobody ever did the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ story as an action movie, and he really was an action guy. [Ours] is a big, wild action movie.”

Actually, Ritchie has a bit of a point. Holmes proved himself to be quite the brawler in several of the original stories. For example, in “The Adventure of the Empty House” he tells Watson how he survived his encounter with Dr. Moriarty at the Reichenbach falls:

[Moriarty] knew that his own game was up, and was only anxious to revenge himself upon me. We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip, and and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds, and clawed the air with both his hands.

Somehow, though, I doubt that Ritchie’s film is going to be very true to the Doyle corpus.

Holmes has been the subject of many film adaptations. The Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies of the late 1930′s and 1940′s probably come pretty close to portraying Holmes as an action star, at least by the standards of the times. As films they were entertaining, but as adaptations of Homes’ character they left something to be desired.

On the subject of dreadful Holmes adaptations, we really must mention Roger Moore’s dreadful try at the role in the abysmal 1976 film, Sherlock Holmes in New York. I mean, really, once you’ve tried that you might as well cast Tony Randall as Hercule Poirot. (Oops, they did that one too.)

Pride of place in any list of bad Holmes adaptations must surely go to 1985′s Young Sherlock Holmes. Young Holmes fighting a crazy, sadistic religious cult. Enough said?

Holmes did get a truly excellent treatment from Jeremy Brett, in a series of adaptations for PBS’ Mystery series. Brett’s Holmes was surely the definitive treatment of the character, at least if a proper adaptation of Doyle’s writing was the goal. Somehow I don’t see Robert Downey’s take on the character being quite so faithful.

Whatever. I’ll go see the film even if I’m quite certain it’s going to be pretty bad. That’s pretty much how I feel about the upcoming Star Trek prequel too, but that’s a different post.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave M
    December 3, 2008

    The one I’m wondering about is the The Day the Earth Stood Still remake w/Keanu. It could be highly amusing, or it could be an outrage, a travesty, and a disgrace.

  2. #2 rpenner
    December 3, 2008

    Actually there’s a Russian adaptation of Sherlock Holmes which was also considered well done.

    http://www.bakerstreetdozen.com/russianholmes.html

  3. #3 Phil
    December 3, 2008

    I sort of liked Roger Moore. But then I like him in general, he seems like a likeable sort.
    One of my favorites was Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cushing. He was sort of short, but he captured the character very well.
    And of course the most interesting interpretation was the seven percent solution. So having reinterpretations is not a bad thing.

  4. #4 Ian Pattinson
    December 3, 2008

    The Ritchie film started shooting in Manchester just over a month ago and I got to do some work on it as an extra. I was one of a couple of hundred Lords/MPs shooting a Parliament scene in Manchester Town Hall.

    No Robert Downey Jr. in my scene, just a couple of the bad guys. But I did get to wear a magnificent, if itchy, fake moustache-
    http://www.spinneyhead.co.uk/2008/10/i-now-have-most-wonderful-moustache-but.php

  5. #5 SLC
    December 3, 2008

    Actually, in the short story, “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,” Holmes engages in a punchout with a character named Woodley in a bar. As Holmes tells Watson, he came home with a small bruise on his face, Woodley went home in a cart.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    December 3, 2008

    Eh. My litmus test for any Holmes dramatization is the treatment of Dr. Watson. Sadly, the Rathbone/Bruce presentation of Watson as an inept, dimwitted nincompoop seems to be the rule as opposed to the (excellent) Burke/Hardwicke treatment in the Mystery series.

  7. #7 BobbyEarle
    December 3, 2008

    The next step, of course, would be a Sherlock Holmes Action Figure.

    I don’t think it would be much of a commercial success. The little plastic meerschaum pipe would be a choking hazard.

  8. #8 tai haku
    December 3, 2008

    I’m not sure how I missed the “Baritsu” reference when reading the Empty House – Conan-Doyle spelt it incorrectly – its actually Bartitsu and has one of the weirdest and most interesting histories of any martial art:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartitsu

    I’d be well up for a Holmes adventure movie featuring Japanese sword play performed with victorian walking sticks.

    I don’t know if you caught the bbc’s Rupert Everett version of a couple of years back – from memory it wasn’t a conan-doyle tale but a new script and was quite action-filled (and I thought not too bad).

  9. #9 Mike
    December 3, 2008

    I remember a BBC TV version of the Hound of the Baskervilles in the early 90s with Ian Hart as Dr Watson and an Australian actor (can’t remember the name, can’t be bothered to IMDB it) where both Holmes and Watson were obviously men of action. Pity it wasn’t very good.

  10. #10 Greg Esres
    December 3, 2008

    Reminds me of the dumbing down of Mission Impossible.

  11. #11 Virginia
    December 3, 2008

    I’ve always found Brett’s portrayal to be overrated. He strikes me as too effete and stand-offish. The one who comes closest to the Holmes I imagined from the stories is Rathbone (leaving aside the quality of the individual films, which is mixed). Rathbone certainly looks the part more than the others – compare him to the original Sidney Paget illustrations. And he also captures Holmes’s persona. Holmes certainly was a man of action, not just an intellectual puzzle solver like Poirot, and Rathbone conveys this.

    Also pretty good was Nicol Williamson in “The Seven Percent Solution.”

  12. #12 The Science Pundit
    December 3, 2008

    D. C. Sessions:

    Eh. My litmus test for any Holmes dramatization is the treatment of Dr. Watson. Sadly, the Rathbone/Bruce presentation of Watson as an inept, dimwitted nincompoop seems to be the rule as opposed to the (excellent) Burke/Hardwicke treatment in the Mystery series.

    This is absolutely correct! I remember my shock when reading my first Sherlock Holmes story as a teenager (I was of course already familiar with several movie adaptations). The common portrayal of Watson is especially frustrating when one considers that the stories (with one exception, I believe) were all narrated by Watson and told from his point of view. What made the Holmes character so inspiring was that even this extremely intelligent narrator who could explain everything so eloquently and rationally still found himself in awe of his companion.

  13. #13 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 3, 2008

    Dave M -

    I haven’t seen the original version of The Day the Earth Stodd Still. Is it worth adding to my Netflix queue?

    rpenner –

    Thanks for the link.

    Ian Pattinson -

    Congratulations on your work in the film. Here’s hoping you don’t end up on the cutting room floor.

    SLC –

    Yes, I remember that one! There was also a certain amount of gunplay in some of the stories, as I recall.

    tai haku –

    Thanks for the information. If the Rupert Everett version is available from Netflix, I’ll add it to my queue.

    Greg Esres –

    I agree completely. I regard Mission: Impossible as one of the best television series ever, but the movies have been awful. Movies based on old television series are often bad since they are frequently made by people with no respect for the original series. They are simply buying a famous name. :(

    Virginia –

    I think in some of the later adaptaions, Jeremy Brett did start playing Holmes as a bit effeminate. But I still think his portrayal was generally excellent.

  14. #14 trrll
    December 3, 2008

    The best portrayal of Watson that I can recall was in the film version of “Silver Blaze”, in which he was played by Ian Fleming (no, not that Ian Fleming).

    In the original stories, Watson is no fool, and I actually think that Watson should be played a bit more intelligently on film than he is portrayed in the books, because they are narrated from Watson’s point of view, and Watson is clearly a self-deprecating sort–and hanging out with Holmes is not exactly likely to build up anybody’s ego. Given Watson’s character, it seems likely that he would have understated his own contributions.

  15. #15 Geis
    December 3, 2008

    James Bond 1891? Blech. Well, no. A steampunk James Bond sort of film could be very good, just don’t try to shoehorn Sherlock Holmes into the title role.

    I’m glad I just picked up two DVD sets of Jeremy Brett. I think I’ll put one of the disks in now to erase the Robert Downey Jr. image out of my mind.

    > I haven’t seen the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

    Yes. Absolutely, yes.

  16. #16 Christopher Taylor
    December 3, 2008

    I’ve always found Brett’s portrayal to be overrated. He strikes me as too effete and stand-offish.

    While I haven’t seen the adaptation in question, I would have thought that Holmes would have been decidedly stand-offish. This was, after all, a man of no small degree of self-satisfaction and arrogance. Holmes has always struck as a character who is incredibly capable, but not particularly nice in person.

  17. #17 Dave M
    December 3, 2008

    The Day the Earth Stood Still is a classic in the sense not of being a Great Movie (imo) but rather of being an essential pop-culture touchstone: 50′s Cold War paranoia plus rocket ships and killer robots (or one of them anyway). Definitely see it. And remember: Klaatu barada nikto!

  18. #18 Blake Stacey
    December 3, 2008

    The original The Day the Earth Stood Still is quite a good movie. It and Forbidden Planet are two instances where the 1950s got science fiction right.

    It was in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” that one of Holmes’ less cheerful visitors bent a fire-poker in a demonstration of his strength before walking out of 221B Baker Street in a huff. After his departure, Holmes took the poker and calmly straightened it again.

    Pride of place in any list of bad Holmes adaptations must surely go to 1985′s Young Sherlock Holmes. Young Holmes fighting a crazy, sadistic religious cult. Enough said?

    I have an odd sentimental fondness for this movie. It’s the sort of attachment one can get to a story if you see it when you’re young enough, even if it’s pretty bad. Somehow, it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a period adventure story larded with Oriental exoticism.

  19. #19 Blake Stacey
    December 3, 2008

    Nicholas Meyer, who wrote The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (and who directed Star Trek II and VI, among other things) wrote two other Sherlock Holmes pastiches: The West End Horror and The Canary Trainer. The latter features Holmes during his wanderings while the world presumed him dead, facing a deadly adversary. . . the Phantom of the Opera!

    Well, I think it’s awesome.

  20. #20 cwfong
    December 3, 2008

    Holmes’ most famous inferences were arguably cases of abductive reasoning. Hard to see Downey exhibiting such a persona on screen.

  21. #21 tai haku
    December 4, 2008

    A bit more on the Rupert Everett one – including the name and a review:
    http://www.bakerstreetdozen.com/silkstock.html

  22. #22 yammerschooner
    December 4, 2008

    Purest will disagree, but my favorite Sherlock Holmes was George C. Scott in They Might Be Giants.

  23. #23 SLC
    December 4, 2008

    Re Jason Rosenhouse

    Yes, in the Adventure of the Three Garridebs, Watson is shot by Killer Evans.

  24. #24 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 5, 2008

    I seem to recall some shooting at the end of The Sign of Four as well.

    Blake Stacey -

    I’ll have to check those out, though I usually scoff at stories featuring iconic characters that were not written by their original creators. I haven’t read any of those non-Ian Fleming James Bond novels, for example.

    Stephen King once wrote a Sherlock Holmes story. It was really bad, despite being a locked room mystery (my favorite kind!)

  25. #25 Troublesome Frog
    December 7, 2008

    I have to agree that Jeremy Brett is about as perfect as it gets for Holmes. Arrogant and stand-offish, unpredictable, prone swing between bursts of energy and deep, almost unnerving concentration–Holmes was not a smooth social operator like a James Bond.

    He always struck me as the type of person who would have to work hard to put people at ease, but understands that he’s brilliant and irreplaceable enough that he doesn’t have to bother.

  26. #26 Eryaman
    July 18, 2010

    The Day the Earth Stood Still is a classic in the sense not of being a Great Movie (imo) but rather of being an essential pop-culture touchstone: 50′s Cold War paranoia plus rocket ships and killer robots (or one of them anyway). Definitely see it. And remember: Klaatu barada nikto

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