Sherlock Holmes: Action Hero??

June 1st, 2009 | Posted in General

It’s no secret that I am a big fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes, the great fictional detective. I’ve done numerous Holmes illustrations for audiobook collections, designed a Sherlock Holmes pen and am somewhat of a scholar on the “Canon” i.e. Conan Doyle’s original 56 short stories and 4 novels. However I am not very well versed on the thousands of works by other creative people with Holmes as their subject including the numerous films, TV series, stories books and comics. Shame on me, perhaps, but I’ve always felt that while you can certainly enjoy the interpretations of any source material you can seldom beat the original creator’s vision. The James Bond films come to mind as taking the creation of Ian Fleming and in some cases making him more interesting and exciting, but I think that’s a rare exception that proves the rule. In any case finding the time to even sample the other works of the most widely filmed, written and acted character in the history of fiction is not easy.

Which brings me to the upcoming new film “Sherlock Holmes” by director Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson. I’ve gotten not a few e-mails from people asking what I think about this new movie. A full trailer has recently been released (see above). I’ll admit despite trying to keep an open mind I am having a hard time believing I will like this film. That’s saying something considering I am one of the few hardcore Batman comic book fans that loves the Adam West TV series… proving I do not have a problem with very different and oddball takes on favorite fictional characters.

I’ve read articles stating, and it’s quite obvious from the trailer, that Ritchie’s intent is to update the Holmes character to 21st century interest even though keeping it set in the proper century. Still, it’s one thing to reinvent a classic character and another to completely ignore some of the most recognized character elements they possess while playing up some of the least important. I guess Ritchie’s idea of updating Holmes is to turn him into an action hero, leaping out of buildings and fighting villains with all manner of weapons.

I know the arguments that have been made by the actors and others associated with the film… that Holmes was in fact a very physical being and this is closer to the Conan Doyle original character than other portrayals. Whoever makes this argument must have been reading a different set of Conan Doyle stories than I have read. Yes, Holmes did have a number of physical skills in the original stories… he was an expert amateur boxer as demonstrated and referred to in several stories including The Sign of the Four and The Solitary Cyclist. He describes himself as having a “knowledge of baritsu” a “Japanese system of wrestling” (actually Conan Doyle probably meant “Bartitsu“) also referred to a few times as in The Empty House. Watson describes him as having a surprising level of physical strength for a man of his “excessive leanness”, as he demonstrates in the story The Speckled Band when he straightens out a bent iron poker with his bare hands to show he is quite as strong as the antagonist who bent the poker in the first place. Watson also describes him as an expert singlestick player (singlestick is a martial art related to fencing and stick fighting using a wooden weapon and stick fighting is the use of a small staff, cane or walking stick as a blunt hand weapon) and swordsman, although these skills were never featured in any specific Holmes story (Holmes used a riding crop a few times). He was also a decent marksman with a pistol, as demonstrated by his writing the royal initials “VR” in bullet holes in the wall of his sitting room during the occasional indoor target practice which so displeased his landlady, Mrs. Hudson. So there is an argument that Holmes was a formidable fighter and man of action.

However Holmes the detective abhorred that kind of physicality. As a “consulting detective” he preferred to deliver his opinions from the comfort of his armchair, and would reluctantly “bustle about and see things with my own eyes” only when the case called for it. While he would not hesitate to doff his shoes and socks and scale the walls of a house (The Sign of the Four again), spend a morning trying to tranfix a hanging pig carcass with a harpoon (Black Peter), burgle a house in the dead of night (Charles Augustus Milverton) and perform other energetic feats, Holmes always preferred using pure mental power to solves his cases. Several times he both said and insinuated that Watson was the person he relied on when “some little violence” was imminent. In my mind it becomes quite a stretch to take the Holmes of Conan Doyle’s stories and make him a swashbuckling action hero, which is apparently what Ritchie has done. It seems he has latched on to some of the less import elements of Holmes’ character and caricatured them to make them more prominent.

The trailer seems to also indicate that Ritchie has taken other attributes of Holmes’ from the canon and exaggerated them. Holmes’ penchant on being slovenly and untidy, for example. He was thus described several times by Watson, yet as a Victorian gentlemen he would never dream to be out of proper attire even in his sitting room. “Slovenly” is a relative term, and what would be considered sloppy in the late 1800’s in a gentelman’s Victorian London would be fastidious today. For example, both he and Watson undoubtedly would share the British habit of being clean shaven and groomed no matter what the circumstances, yet Holmes appears to have perpetual 2 days stubble in the trailer. Watson also chastens him for his unclean habits in the trailer. I wonder if Ritchie will make Holmes a drooling cokehead as well.

There seems to be a lot of humor in the trailer, which I think is well placed. Holmes had quite the dry wit, and he cracked plenty of sarcastic jokes and comments. Robert Downey Jr. excels in that kind of dialogue, so that will no doubt be very entertaining. Ritchie’s movies are centered on humorous English banter amid violent circumstances.

Finally, the casting of Downey Jr. is a bit of a mystery to me. He is very far from the classic look and physicality of Holmes, who was “rather over 6 feet and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller”, had a “thin, hawk-like nose” and a “square and prominent” chin. Downey Jr. is 5 foot 8 inches in “Hollywood height” which means he’s probably 5’7″ max with a small rounded nose and no chin. Now, in many cases you can get around a difference in the physical nature of an actor vs. a fictional character’s common description, but the tall, lean Holmes is iconic. Under no circumstances should Watson be TALLER than Holmes, which at 6 feet he clearly is in the trailer. Downey Jr. is a great actor and maybe he’ll make me forget he is a little guy, but I think it will distract me the entire film. It’s like casting a taller Robin alongside Batman.

I could go on and on here, but I’ll let it go and try and keep an open mind. I may love the film and still shake my head and say “fun but it wasn’t Sherlock Holmes”. Who knows? I won’t until the movie comes out. I am a fan of Guy Ritchie’s films, and it will be interesting to see if his very recognizable stamp is on this movie and how he works it in to a film set in Victorian times.


  1. Mark says:

    Hi Tom. I totally agree. I too am having a hard time believing I will like this film. Guy Ritchie’s range seems… well.. limited… and this type of film (if done correctly) would take a whole lot of range..

  2. That is not my dear Watson. That is in fact… huh?
    The trailer itself looks and sounds just like hundreds of other trailers for other movies. I swear I’ve heard that same crashing sound in at least 754 other trailers, and that same chase music in 42 others.
    I seriously hope the movie stands out much more than the trailer.

  3. Neil Davies says:

    Hi Tom. I’m reading the complete works of Holmes now and loving it (read A Study In Scarlet, The Sign of the Four and some of the shorts so far), partly because I want to have a good knowledge of the character before seeing this film. RDJ is one of my favourite actors so I have high hopes but I’m not a huge Guy Ritchie fan. Maybe a big movie will attract more people to the source material though, as it has for me.

  4. mKudna says:

    I dony know, I am young and never read Sherlock Holmes, so I think this looks like something that could hold my interest for 2 hrs.

  5. bishopslikepawn says:

    It would’ve been better if he kept the accent from ‘Tropic of Thunder’ like he joked in the director’s commentary. Quote: “That sh*ts elementary Watson”.

  6. sharprm says:

    Hey what about the games? That one was good.

    I hope this film isn’t like Wild Wild West. But then the worse it is, the easier the mad spoof would be surely?

  7. brian says:

    Tom, I’m a huge Sherlock fan too, and I had the same reaction.

    I’m sure I’ll fork out the money to go see it, but I don’t have very high expectations.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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