Sherlock Holmes does not get enough movie love, these days.
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point Sherlock Holmes, one of the most fantastically cinematic characters there is, got relegated to television. The lengthy Jeremy Brett series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes likely had something to do with it, simply because it was such a good television show and so perfectly realized that it almost seemed to make further adaptations of the classic Holmes stories pointless. (After all, the series managed to neatly adapt practically all of the original Holmes stories.)
There’s also the continuing fear of making new Holmes stories, not least because the original Sherlock Holmes stories are so elegantly written; the mystery genre is, to this day, largely defined by the rules set out by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, even if he never actually intended to create rules for mystery writing in the first place. And if you’re going to write a mystery story, it becomes more intimidating to write one using Sherlock Holmes, because his fanbase, to this day, remains quite enthusiastic – and judgemental.
Even so, that’s no excuse. More Holmes movies are needed. But, in the meantime, there are two excellent and largely underrated flicks for Holmes fans to enjoy, both evading the “but I can’t imitate Conan Doyle” trap by twisting the concept as they saw fit to create a new type of story.
It’s hilarious and exciting both, in equal measures (the final action sequence, in a burning theatre, is really fantastic considering it’s a couple of British guys in their 50s doing all the stunt work), and although the film suffers part way through for having Kingsley offscreen for an extended period (and it’s a shame, because when Caine and Kingsley are tossing lines at one another like exploding popcorn, it’s almost unparalleled great fun), when he storms back triumphantly it’s just all the better. And Caine is of course himself in full fetter, playing the type of role he plays best – a working-class lad trying to pretend he’s classier than he is. As a bonus, Jeffrey Jones plays Lestrade, and Jeffrey Jones is hilarious in everything.
Young Sherlock Holmes goes a wholly different way, one that was somewhat controversial among Holmes fans – it’s a swashbuckling adventure flick rather than a pure mystery, and Holmes’ detective skills, while evident, aren’t nearly so important to the story as his ability with a rapier. Answering the never-asked-but-why-not question of “what if Holmes and Watson met when they were in school” with “well, clearly they would investigate a murderous cult,” the film is nowadays frequently reduced to being the answer to a trivia question. (“What film had the first totally computer-generated character?”)
It deserves better. Young Sherlock Holmes is burdened unfairly in a number of ways, not least being the fact that the bad guys are a cult (one of those things that never really seems to click with audiences in movies). Alan Cox as Young Watson is, perhaps, somewhat overwhelmed by the role. And maybe a little more detectoring would have been in order, considering it’s a Sherlock Holmes movie in title if nothing else. (Admittedly, the film’s ending makes it clear that Holmes’ experiences over the course of the story teach him to value deductive logic and discipline above all else, so it’s not incorrectly used – but it still feels a bit incongruous.)
But its strengths greatly outweigh the minuses. The action sequences are excellent, the plot well-thought-out (it was written by Chris Columbus, of all people). The villains are excellent and genuinely freakish when they need to be, and the hallucinogenic sequences are scary in all the right ways. The comedic bits don’t detract from the story in the slightest (and in a movie like this one, where the desire to break the fourth wall is almost palpable, that’s a great thing). Best of all, the central romantic relationship between Nicholas Rowe’s Holmes and Sophie Ward as Elizabeth is excellent; both young actors are very talented and play their roles near-perfectly.
Both films are great, but they can’t give us what we truly crave, which is more original Holmes flicks in the classic mold. But, until such time as somebody makes a new one, they do quite nicely.