Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Occupy Sherlock: How a dumbed-down Holmes contains a smart critique of power

There is a moment, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, when consulting detective Sherlock Holmes accuses his faithful assistant Watson of sensationalizing his stories for publication. Producer Lionel Wigram, responsible for both 200

Robert Downey Jr. (in the dress) and Jude Law in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Robert Downey Jr. (in the dress) and Jude Law in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”


There is a moment, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, when consulting detective Sherlock Holmes accuses his faithful assistant Watson of sensationalizing his stories for publication. Producer Lionel Wigram, responsible for both 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes” and its current sequel, “A Game of Shadows,” seems to be of the opinion that the best thing about the stories was the sensation, and so he has reimagined Holmes. Never mind the deerstalker cap or calabash. 

Wigram’s Holmes, played by Robert Downey Jr., dresses like a Victorian bohemian, peppers his conversations with wisecracks, and spends as much time fistfighting as he does engaging in his famous inductive reasoning. His are the methods of the pulp detective, who tended to be less skilled at detecting than in simply creating chaos, taking a lot of abuse, and dishing out his share of violence. It’s a blunt approach to detecting, but, at least in fiction, it works. Crime is necessarily something done in secret, hidden in the shadows. When a pulp detective starts calling attention to these concealed dealings, whoever is responsible will usually reveal themselves, if only to shut the detective up.

There are pleasures in pulp. Much pulp literature took place in a demon-haunted world, where the supernatural was often used as a cover for crime, a tradition that probably was started with Doyle in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” a sort of spiritual father to the occult empire built by Fu Manchu, or the hypnotic crime fighting of The Shadow, or, one supposes, the weekly adventures of the Scooby Doo gang. The first “Sherlock Holmes” movie was likewise demon-haunted, with Downey’s Holmes battling Victorian satanists with the help of a Watson, played by Jude Law, who was as much a marksman as a physician, and interacted with Holmes like an old lover, rather than a friend. The first film was directed by Guy Ritchie, a British director probably best known for a series of British crime capers that were both devilishly complicated and perfectly unlikely. His was a world of bumblers and coincidences, where criminals tend to meet by accident, kill each other by mistake, and scheme without success.

Article continues after advertisement

Ritchie doesn’t seem like the sort who could dramatize Holmes, who was far from a bumbler, and whose world was one of clever criminals laying clever webs, with deliberate dead ends and intellectual traps. This would especially be important in this new film, which looks at Professor Moriarity, Holmes’ nemesis and his intellectual equal. And, in a lot of ways, Ritchie isn’t the filmmaker for this material. Holmes’ deductive skills are mostly played as a parlor trick, and Moriarity’s scheming is obtuse and clumsily expressed. This is not an elegant world of elaborate plots. It is, instead, one of increasingly large and sophisticated guns. The film’s showcase sequence is a long stretch in which Holmes, Watson, and a gang of Gypsies run through the woods as soldiers-for-hire shell them with explosives. The whole of it is shot in a slow motion so slow that time seems to have stopped, but for splintering of trees, eruptions of flame, and whistling of shrapnel. It’s a moment of great visual splendor — Guy Ritchie has always been a superb stylist. But it is the representative moment of this film, and it is one in which no intelligence is on display. It does not need to be Holmes running through the woods. Anybody can run through the woods.

In fairness, Holmes isn’t completely dumbed down in this film. The climactic scene is one of deduction, and left to Watson, who must use Holmes’ techniques to uncover an assassin. The logic Watson uses is clearly mapped out — far more clearly that anything Holmes has done in the film, where he makes great, impossible leaps of logic, often just knowing things that we are supposed to just trust to be the sort of things that Holmes would be able to figure out. Despite Watson’s careful detecting, however, this is not the classic scene from detective literature, in which the detective gathers the suspects in a drawing room and reveals the guilty party. No, a fistfight breaks out, and then, at least in Holmes’ head, another — this is a Sherlock who spends at least as much time thinking about fighting as thinking about mysteries. 

And this is a pulp pleasure as well: The detectives of mid-20th century men’s magazines were frequently brutal, and, in fairness, there may have been some Holmes influence in this, as in the original stories he was a skilled boxer, could disarm an opponent with just the use of a cane, and boasted of some knowledge of martial arts. In many ways, the pulp detectives were Holmes without his genius, and that’s the sort of Holmes we end up with in this film. It makes for a fitfully entertaining film, but the pleasures are brutal and mindless, closer to “My Gun Is Quick” than “A Study in Scarlet,” albeit with an eccentric, bohemian, blatantly homoerotic Mike Hammer as its lead.

There’s another Sherlock Holmes about just now, a version that aired on BBC called, simply, “Sherlock,” that updated Holmes to the modern era (including considerable gay subtext, which seems to be the revision du jour for the character). It never scrimps on Holmes’ towering intellect, even while infusing the story with occasional and anachronistic doses of pulp. For fans of the original character I would recommend that version over the Robert Downey Holmes films. But I can’t completely dismiss this reckless, dumbed-down, punch-drunk Holmes either. These two films have, as their basic story, tales of how unscrupulous men will manipulate superstition and nationalism for their own personal gain, trading the deaths of hundreds or even millions for lucre. There were always these characters in literature — again, Fu Manchu is an example. But they feel less like a paranoiac fantasy just now, especially as these new Sherlock Holmes films cast these plotters as government officials, rather than insidious foreign devils.

We have, after all, just taken the troops out of Iraq, which now ranks of one of the longest sustained conflicts in American history, and the most expensive. And we know the war was started based on stovepiped bad intelligence and personal vendettas. And we know that cronies of those in power made fortunes from this war of choice. In this context, “Game of Shadows” may not be great Holmes, but it nonetheless feels oddly timely. Holmes may not be the florid genius we expect, but he’s in a story that offers up a critique of religion and politics as being tools of privileged men to fortify their power and fortune, and it is a cost paid by everybody else. And that’s a smarter critique than one might expect from such a stupid Holmes.