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Sherlock Holmes Week Day 5: Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes 2009Director: Guy Ritchie

Writers: Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg & Lionel Wigram, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Robert Maillet, Geraldine James, Kelly Reilly, William Houston, Hans Matheson, Oran Gurel, James Fox

Plot: Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) races through the streets of London. Journeying deep into the underground he finds a woman on an altar, about to be sacrificed in a pagan ritual. He’s almost captured, but Dr. Watson (Jude Law) steps from the shadows and rescues him, telling him Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) is preparing his men to attack. Holmes and Watson disrupt the sacrifice, fighting off the participants and coming face-to-face with the hooded leader of the cult: Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who is arrested.

Three months later Watson is planning his departure from 221B Baker Street, planning to get married soon. Watson insists Holmes meet him and his prospective fiancé Mary (Kelly Reilly) for dinner. Mary, a fan of Holmes’s exploits, has him use his powers of deduction to piece together information about her, ultimately embarrassing her and driving her off. The next day, Blackwood’s scheduled execution day, Watson tells Holmes Blackwood’s last request is an interview with the great detective. Blackwood calls his five murder victims a necessary sacrifice and tells Holmes he underestimates the gravity of coming events. Blackwood’s hanging proceeds as planned, and Watson himself declares him dead.

Holmes is visited by a former acquaintance named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who finds that Holmes has been investigating her illicit criminal activities. She asks him for help hunting down a man named Luke Reordan (Oran Gurel), then meets with a hidden man who hired her to engage Holmes. Holmes and Watson consider the hidden man just as Constable Clark (William Houston) arrives to tell them the late Lord Blackwood has been spotted, alive. They find his tomb has been smashed open, and the coffin contains Luke Reordan, dead, covered in dirt. In Reordan’s home, Holmes finds dead animals that have been preserved and experimented upon in what appears to be an attempt at a magical ritual. They’re attacked and chase one of the assailants to a shipyard. Destroying a ship, the man escapes, and Holmes and Watson are arrested. In the morning Mary bails out Watson – but not Holmes. Holmes’s bail comes later, and he is taken to meet his benefactor, Sir Thomas Rotheram (James Fox), member of a supposedly-benevolent Temple of the Four Orders, who fears Blackwood will use their techniques for something terrible. Holmes deduces almost immediately that Rotheram is Blackwood’s father. That night, Blackwood murders his father in the bath. With the help of Lord Coward (Hans Matheson), who has influence over the police, Blackwood seizes leadership of the Four Orders, planning to wrest control of Britain, then America, then the world.

Holmes and Watson track down Blackwood, but find Irene about to be killed in a slaughterhouse. They save her (as they always do in the movies) in the nick of time. Before they can leave, the slaughterhouse explodes. The police arrive and Clark, finding Holmes in the wreckage, warns him that there’s a warrant for his arrest, and urges him to flee. Holmes compares Reordan’s rituals with Blackwood’s crimes to determine his final target: Parliament. In an action sequence that takes them across, underneath, and above London, the trio face down Blackwood and his men. Holmes and Irene wind up on the incomplete bridge over the Thames when Blackwood arrives, shoving her from the bridge. The two duel and Holmes explains how Blackwood carried out his various feats just before the villain falls and hangs from a chain. Holmes goes to Irene, safe on a platform below, and she tells him her employer is a professor named Moriarty who forced her into going along with his scheme. He arrests her for her assorted crimes, but admits he’ll miss her.

Later, as Watson moves the last of his possessions to his new home with Mary, Clark tells them of a murdered police officer, a crime Holmes attributes to the mysterious Moriarity, who stole a piece of Blackwood’s machine. Donning his hat, Holmes declares the case re-opened.

Thoughts: This is without a doubt the most unique interpretation of Holmes we’ve yet encountered in this experiment. The first four films, even the ones that aren’t very good, adhered pretty closely to the formula Arthur Conan Doyle created in the original stories. This time, though, director Guy Ritchie has turned up the action quotient considerably. The film is very fast-moving, and frequently shifts into a sort of slow motion sequence in which Holmes plans out the next several seconds, then executes his plan. It’s a neat little trick that works well to demonstrate the sort of analytical mind we’re looking at here, allowing the audience a rare glance into the internal life of Holmes, something that most creators (even Doyle, for the most part) have always been careful to avoid. In truth, with most versions of Holmes it probably would have been a mistake to do such a thing, but in this version, it fits very well.

The Holmes/Watson dynamic is the core of this movie in a way that we haven’t seen before. While their friendship has always been the most significant relationship in Holmes’s life, in this case it’s almost essential to the tone of the story. Ritchie plays it for comedy, showing them as real brothers – snarky, insufferable brothers, sometimes at each other’s throat but always willing to fight and bleed for the other. Even the bits where Holmes seems trying to deliberately sabotage Watson’s romance with Mary don’t feel too far-fetched… it comes across as a man who feels his more sincere connection slipping away from him, and for once the great mind is completely unable to deal with it. In some ways, Mary even comes across as an interloper. She’s the one monkeying with the long-established bond (even though this is the first film in this particular incarnation) between the two characters, and there’s a temptation to resent her for it. This is overcome, fortunately, when Mary and Holmes meet in the hospital, standing over the injured Watson, and she implores the detective to do whatever he needs to do to solve the case and save the man they both love from further danger.

The small moments between them, consequently, work very well. Holmes constantly makes coy remarks about Watson being unhappy with retiring from investigation. He bribes a “fortune teller” to predict a miserable life with Mary, brings a corpse right under Watson’s nose to examine… Very often we see Holmes as someone unable to admit any real human connection, unwilling to let it show how deeply he values Watson’s assistance and, even more importantly, his companionship. This isn’t that Holmes at all. Although he dresses up his actions by pretending he’s doing it for Watson’s own good, because Watson would never be satisfied without him, it’s plain from the outset that Downey’s Holmes needs Law’s Watson more than the other way around.

The fighting, much more than the other Holmes films, is central to the film. It’s energetic, well-presented, and exciting. Even the parts that are clearly CGI – such as the slightly too-perfect destruction of the shipyard – work perfectly well as an action sequence.

Downey’s Holmes has the requisite pomposity, but also a sort of dashing charm other interpretations of the character often lack. While Billy Wilder chose to cast a Holmes in a way that left his associations with the fairer sex in doubt, this film makes it clear from the beginning that Holmes’s lack of experience with women comes from the fact that there’s only one who has ever truly fascinated him: Irene Adler. Jude Law’s Watson is younger and more active than most other versions, and much more likely to demonstrate the sort of exasperation any of us would probably feel having to associate with a Sherlock Holmes on a regular basis.  He plays the character really well, a convincing proper British gentleman constantly trying to deal with and defend a very improper one.

Rachel McAdams rounds out the main cast as Irene Adler – sly, clever, and alluring without being over-sexualized. It’s easy to believe she’s someone with a sharp enough brain to engage even the great Sherlock Holmes. Unlike Mary, when she joins with Holmes and Watson she fits in very well. There’s no feeling like she’s disrupting things – she actually seems to belong. Watson is amused that there’s actually a woman who can keep up with Holmes, Irene is pleased to have an ally in antagonizing the great detective. The three of them together are even more fun to watch than just Downey and Law.

Eddie Marsan’s Inspector Lestrade is a bit of a wild card. In the many, many interpretations of Holmes over the years, we’ve seen Lestrade as everything from a willing ally to the detective to a frustrated police officer who only barely tolerates his presence. This version leans closer to the latter, and Marsan plays him well. At the same time, though, he doesn’t let his personal dislike of Holmes blind him to facts or obvious conclusions, which makes him a more reasonable and believable version of the character than many. When he arrests Holmes, we believe it. When we learn that he helped Holmes to escape just minutes later, we believe that as well.

Like The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire, this film attempts an all-new story with the classic characters. Unlike that weak film, however, this one draws in lots of small bits from the Doyle canon. Adler and Moriarity are frequently used in Holmes adaptations, even though they play only small roles in the original stories. Here, they fill the roles the story requires, while still allowing room to grow into different directions. Mary, also, is a character plucked from the Doyle canon, and her role in the story here is close enough to the original purpose to feel natural. The whole thing comes across as fresh, exciting, and engaging. It’s almost a surprise – when a franchise veers so far from the source material it could be easy to grow angry about it, but instead we get something that’s fun to watch.

If there’s one thing missing from this movie, it’s the mystery. Holmes knows from the outset that Blackwood is his enemy, and instead of trying to find the perpetrator of a crime he’s instead trying to find the evidence to explain how he’s doing what he’s doing, then stop him from carrying out what can only be termed a terrorist attack. It’s a “howdunit” rather than a “whodunit.” It’s a legitimate form of mystery (virtually every episode of Columbo operated on a similar principle), but it does diminish Holmes just a bit, to have a clear adversary in his great battle of wits.

All in all, though, the film is remarkably fun. I don’t know if I’d be quite as happy if there weren’t more traditional versions of Holmes available, though. While Downey and Law’s film is a blast, I like having a Holmes that works well as a detective first and an action hero second. That in mind, how about a Sherlock Holmes Week Bonus, friends? It’s not a movie (technically speaking), but to my way of thinking, it’s one of the best interpretations of Sherlock Holmes ever put to the screen, and if you come back tomorrow we’ll talk all about it… Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC television series Sherlock.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!


Movies you (maybe) didn’t know came from comic books

In case you didn’t know, this coming Saturday is Free Comic Book Day, the annual celebration of comics where stores across North America give out special edition comics made just for the occasion. Many of the best stores have gone so far as to make this event a sort of mini-convention, with tables for writers, artists and media folk to sit, chat, sketch, and interact with the fans. In fact, I’ll be at BSI Comics in Metairie, Louisiana Saturday with my podcast and promoting my novels.

But this year, we’re stretching the celebration out. This year, the days before FCBD have been declared Comics Kick Ass Week, a time for everyone to spread the word and talk about how great comics are. Now, I do that all the time on my main blog and in my position as a columnist and podcaster for, but I know the Reel to Reel blog reaches a slightly different audience. So I decided that here, to help get folks in the mood, I’d run down some movies or franchises you (probably) didn’t know were based on comic books. Then, check out the Comics Kick Ass Week Tumblr page to see how other bloggers and podcasters are celebrating.

Road to Perdition PosterRoad to Perdition Graphic NovelRoad to Perdition (2002)
Based on the graphic novel Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner

This graphic novel, originally published by DC Comics’ now-defunct Paradox Press imprint, tells the story of Michael Sullivan Jr., a young man horrified when he discovers his father is a hitman for the mob. When his father’s boss, John Looney, finds out that Mike Jr. knows what his father does, he tries to have the family killed. Mike Sr. and Jr. both survive, and begin a road to revenge for the murder of the rest of their family.

Collins is a great novelist and comic book writer who does some of the best old-school crime drama being published today in either medium. He also takes great lengths to make his books as true to life as possible, including real historical figures and events whenever possible. The film, directed by American Beauty’s Sam Mendes, starred Tom Hanks as Mike Sr., Tyler Hoechlin as Mike Jr., Paul Newman as John Rooney (they changed his character’s name for the film) and Jude Law as another hitman sent out to take care of the Sullivan problem. I’ve always enjoyed this movie, even though it can be kind of difficult to accept a hardcore Tom Hanks, and the graphic novel has several sequels, both in comic book form (which tell additional stories about the Sullivans’ time on the road) and in prose form (which focus more on what happened to Mike Jr. when he grew up).

Ghost World Graphic Novel Ghost WorldGhost World (2001)
Based on the graphic novel Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Ghost World focuses on a pair of teenage girls, Enid and Rebecca, the summer after their high school graduation. A practical joke on a lonely man named Seymour sends Enid into an unexpected friendship, a relationship neither of them seem to particularly understand.

Terry Zwigoff, who had previously directed a film about indie comic legend Robert Crumb, helmed this film, casting Thora Birch as Enid, Steve Buscemi as Seymour, and a pre-superstar status Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca. The graphic novel is far more episodic in nature than the film, showing assorted short stories featuring the girls without as much connectivity as Zwigoff gave them on screen. It’s an acceptable compromise, though, making the film feel unified in a way that wouldn’t have happened if he had made a strict adaptation. That sort of anthology feel works much better in book form than it does in a movie.

Adventures of TintinAdventures of Tintin Graphic NovelThe Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Based on the series The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé.

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson achieved a long-held dream in 2011 when they directed and produced the motion-capture Adventures of Tintin. Most American audiences were unfamiliar with the character, though, or if they knew him at all knew him only through the cult favorite 90s animated series. Most audiences didn’t know that Tintin is over 70 years old and, in fact, one of the most popular comic book series of all time… it’s just that most of its success has been overseas.

Created by Hergé in 1929, The Adventures of Tintin featured a young boy reporter going on incredible adventures all over the world. Hergé filled the comics with intensely-researched artifacts and cultures that Tintin and his large cast of friends would get involved with on a regular basis. The comic is criticized sometimes for some culturally insensitive portrayals of different races, depicting them as primitive in comparison to the White-As-The-Driven-Snow Tintin (who, like Hergé himself, is Belgian). Considering the time period Hergé was working in, though, it’s something I’m willing to give a partial pass. Tintin is one of those properties with a huge cultural imprint, inspiring later adventure characters like Indiana Jones, another Spielberg co-creation. It’s worth giving the original a look.

Tales From the Crypt Archives Tales From the CryptTales From the Crypt
Based on classic comics from Tales From the Crypt, The Crypt of Terror, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear by William Gaines, Al Feldstein and countless others.

Remember that awesome HBO horror series Tales From the Crypt? Every week it was like a new horror movie, presented by one of the greatest creepy movie hosts ever. This too, though, was based on a comic book series (in case you missed it somehow). In the early 50s, horror and crime comics were among the most popular titles being published in America, with the EC Comics line dominating sales. Then came a nationwide panic about the effect comic books were having on children, a congressional hearing, a psychology book of extremely questionable pedigree, and the comic publishers got together and wrote a content code that was so restrictive EC went almost completely out of business, eventually ceasing publication of all of their titles except a humor magazine you may have heard of, Mad.

Many of the episodes of the TV show were based on stories pulled straight from the comic books, and like the comics, they maintained their warped sense of justice. Criminals usually received a suitably karmic punishment, victims were rarely completely innocent in the first place, and through it all the Cryptkeeper would hit us with deliciously deadpan puns. The TV series was enormously popular, spawning three movies (not counting two earlier movies made before the HBO formula got it right) and an animated spin-off for kids, Tales From the Cryptkeeper. And that’s not even mentioning the huge stamp the property had on horror fiction in general over the last 50 years, influencing the likes of Stephen King and Sam Raimi and producing plenty of imitators, such as the Creepshow series.

DuckTales Uncle Scrooge in Only a Poor Old ManDucktales
Based largely on Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks.

I know what you’re thinking. “Blake, you can’t tell me DuckTales was based on a comic book. The Disney Ducks were cartoon characters first!” Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, that’s true of Donald Duck and his three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. But what about the rest of the cast of DuckTales? Scrooge McDuck? Crazy inventor Gyro Gearloose? Nefarious villains like Magica DeSpell, Flintheart Glomgold and the Beagle Boys? Just a few of the characters conjured up by one of the greatest cartoonists ever to pick up a pencil, Mr. Carl Barks. Barks worked in animation before finding his niche in the licensed Disney comic books published by Dell. Although he was one of many creators working on those comics, he quickly outshone many of the others… in fact, although at the time the comics were published without creator credits, his style was so distinctive and so much better than his contemporaries that fans sought out his work, and without knowing his name, simply started referring to him as “the Good Artist.”

Barks expanded Donald’s universe immeasurably, not just introducing new characters and concepts, but turning the ducks into globetrotting treasure hunters. Many — hell, most of the most memorable episodes of the DuckTales TV show (which did have a movie spin-off) were lifted straight from Carl Barks comics. He even did a little work on the show for a while. But his best work was in the comics, and those comics were some of the greatest ever made. Fantagraphics Comics is currently publishing an archival series of hardcover books reprinting Barks’s work — if you’re a die-hard Duck fan, you owe it to yourself to read the comics that breathed a new life into the Disney characters and helped spark the renaissance of 80s animation.

Smurfs FCBD 2013 SmurfsThe Smurfs (2011)
Based on The Smu
rfs by Peyo.

Look, I’m not even going to pretend I think the Smurfs movies were any good. But I was a fan of the cartoon when I was a kid, and at the time, I had no idea that the Smurfs, like Tintin, made their original appearance in comic books from Belgium. Originally, they were supporting characters in a Spirou magazine story called “The Flute With Six Holes,” but they soon became popular enough to explode into their own series, many of which are currently being published in English for the very first time by Papercutz Comics. And that’s the reason I’m closing off this list with the Smurfs — because this year, they’re going to be featured in a Free Comic Book Day offering that’s never appeared in the US before. If you’ve got kids who enjoy the movies, here’s a great chance to get them reading.

Check out the Free Comic Book Day website to find the nearest participating store. And while you’re there, look at some of the other books available. Your kids will find recognizable characters from Sesame Street, Spongebob Squarepants, Teen Titans Go!, Adventure Time, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For you grown-ups, there are comics based on the NBC series Grimm, the British cult favorite Judge Dredd, and the Image Comics publication that inspired the AMC smash hit The Walking Dead. Plus, you’ll find Superman, the Avengers, Star Wars, Tinkerbell, Garfield, the Peanuts gang, the Tick, Sonic the Hedgehog, Archie Andrews and other old friends, and there’ll be plenty of titles and characters you’ve never heard of before, but may turn into a new favorite.

And while you’re there, if you’re a fan of any of the movies I mentioned, browse the shelves of the store and pick up a few volumes, or look for something totally new.