Shorter Kyle, Shorter Me, Same Sherlock

Filed under:Movies,Reviews — posted by Anwyn on January 6, 2010 @ 11:19 am

Kyle Smith boils down his argument against the new Holmes movie to objecting to the portrayal of Holmes as action man:

Must we filter every bit of popular literature through the wow-seeking now? … As for the badassery, please. Fencing (and, for that matter, boxing) were gentlemen’s pursuits. A gentleman is pretty much the opposite of a badass. If you want to show a guy beating up villains, why bother to call it Sherlock Holmes? Why not just call it “Die Hard with a Roommate”? The key to Holmes (and by the way, the fencing and the boxing were just character flourishes; he hardly ever solved problems using physical power) was his massive intelligence.

And I reply in a comment awaiting moderation that, no, he doesn’t use physical prowess to solve the problems, but a) that’s not what the movie shows him doing, and b) Doyle’s Holmes does use physical prowess to collar the guys perpetrating the problems, which is what the movie shows. I’ll grant that Doyle’s Holmes would not wade into the finale brawl on his own without Watson, Lestrade, and crew, which he does in the movie, but he definitely is prepared for, and triumphant in, physical confrontation. In A Study in Scarlet, just to take one example, Holmes tricks murderer Jefferson Hope into turning his back to him, snookers the handcuffs onto Hope, and then, joined by Lestrade, Gregson, and Watson, subdues Hope as he tries to throw himself out the window. One guy so ferocious it takes four, including Holmes, to wrestle him down and tie him up with towels. Yeah, no action there.

I think the main source of the disconnect is that while Doyle notes these things, he doesn’t dwell on them, doesn’t describe them in any detail, and thus doesn’t create anything approaching an atmosphere of danger and action. Holmes looks at clues, he sits and thinks, and at the end, he notes out loud the steps he took to reach his conclusion. But in between, there really is a lot of action. And Downey’s Holmes looks at clues, he sits and thinks, and he notes out loud the steps he takes to reach his conclusion. But in between, there really is a lot of action.

P.S.: Funny enough, in another theater in another decade, I probably would have been solidly on Kyle’s side of the question.

Previously: I Detected Some Holmes Under All That Sherlock


  1. I’d forgotten how much I used to laugh over your Greenbooks columns; thanks for the reminder. :-) My freshman year of college, I was reading “Anwyn is from Lothlorien, Bill is from Mordor” during a break in my writing course, and I was laughing so hard that everyone demanded an explanation. After I’d told them what I was reading, our teacher told us that she’d gone on some kind of foreign exchange program to Russia in the early 80s, and a young Russian student pulled her aside and whispered hopefully, “Has Tolkien written anything new lately?”

    Comment by Bumble — January 7, 2010 @ 6:32 am

  2. Aaw. That’s just sad and sweet on so many counts. :)

    Comment by Anwyn — January 7, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

  3. Apparently Kyle Smith also forgot that it was Holmes, Watson, and Inspector Lestrade who gunned down the less-than-spectral hound of the Baskerville curse, with Holmes firing the quietus shots, no less! After he’s been running around the Dartmoor in disguise for half the story, too. No, no action there. And do we really have to include the wrestling match with Moriarity, or the stakeout to catch Moran? No, no action is ever involved. ;)

    Given this forum in question, I am reminded that it was the LOTR trilogy that got me to stop being a great purist about literary adaptations of movies. They were fine movies, only furrowed my brow in a few places, and managed to keep the true spirit of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. And you’re right, the early Harry Potter movies, despite their dogged pursuit of accuracy, managed to be plodding in places. Good movies are never plodding! Good literary stories aren’t plodding either, so the movie director has to be careful not to lose the forest for the trees.

    Comment by exdem13 — January 7, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

  4. I don’t actually mind “Sherlock” being an action movie. As I said in the original review, I realize a big budget movie has to have more than just snoozy PBS-style pipe-puffing. But the action has to be intelligent. Iron Man was a relatively intelligent action movie. Sherlock is a frantically-cut mess in which you can barely tell (or care) what is going on except that S & W are opening a can of whoopass. All of this is intercut with the most excruciating excuses for witty banter.
    If “Sherlock” is a great movie — what is “Iron Man”? The greatest achievement in the history of civilization?

    Comment by Kyle Smith — January 8, 2010 @ 7:56 am

  5. I concede that the fight scenes, besides Holmes planning them before executing them (which I liked), were badly done, which didn’t bother me at the time. Also I guess I overspoke a bit in calling it “great.” I was a bit exuberant at having liked it a lot more than I expected to. My kudos are for Downey & Law first, screenwriters second, Ritchie third, but I think there was more substantive dialogue than you give credit for (I agree there were a lot of clunkers), and I stand by my bottom line–that this Sherlock is very close in spirit to Doyle’s, though of course miles away from previous serious representations.

    Comment by Anwyn — January 8, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

  6. Sherlock did use fisticuffs (a technique called Baritsu) from time to time.

    Comment by Melissa — January 12, 2010 @ 10:39 am

  7. P.S., saw it again tonight and I changed my mind about the order: Downey & Law first, Ritchie second, screenwriters third. Aside from the first fight scene, in the crypt, the rest of the fights were watchable enough, and there was some excellent direction and editing elsewhere. Lots of clunky dialogue, though. Need better polishers for next time around … there must be a next time around.

    Comment by Anwyn — January 12, 2010 @ 11:25 pm

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