Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is, of course, an irreverent, frothy remake of a venerable classic. The tricky thing is that the famous work being refashioned is not, as one might too quickly assume based on the title, the famous detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle but rather the spy movies that grew out of Ian Fleming’s thrillers. The new Sherlock Holmes is for all intents and purposes James Bond with a new name and sent back into late Victorian England. As in the Bond movies, we have the handsome fighting trim hero, many clever gadgets, an aristocratic villain intent on global conquest (in this case the blackguard has the very Bondian name of Lord Blackwood), an elaborate and implausible plot to effect said global conquest, a burly hard-to-kill henchman (in the Bond movies the character is sometimes called Oddjob or Jaws, here he goes by the name Dredger), and an underlying hint of sado-masochism.
I enjoyed the Ritchie film partially because having seen the trailers I wasn’t expecting anything resembling Holmes at all. Since Conan Doyle has been endlessly remade for the last century, a faithful adaptation didn’t seem necessary. Instead the movie took the more unexpected path of creating a mash-up, a mixed salad that brings together in a fresh way ingredients rarely mixed together.
Aside from Bond, Ritchie’s movie borrows liberally from other sources. The settings and costume are pure steam-punk, a gothic retrofitted vision of the past imagining what the Victorians would be like if they had our taste for recondite technology. As Joe McCulloch has noticed the Masonic plotline owes something to From Hell, a graphic novel about Jack the Ripper created by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. I would add that Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with its exuberant make-over of classic Victorian characters so that they could fit into a post-modern superhero romp, was probably also an influence. Indeed, the movie does a better job of adapting Moore’s League than the earlier movie that tried to do the job straight.
Finally, the homoerotic element noted by many reviewers, owes something to slash fiction and perhaps even the Japanese tradition of comics about smoldering same-sex love between men, stories that are often aimed at a female audience. Interestingly, in my experience straight women and gay men tend to like the new Holmes movie than straight men (I haven’t talked to any lesbians about it yet). Aside from the obvious charms of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, it might be that this is one of the first movies to tap into the slash fiction market.
In sum, Sherlock Holmes is a mongrel mutt of a movie, a mixture of many generic gene pools. This novel mixing-and-matching keeps the movie interesting, even if the plot itself was absurd, the direction occasionally clumsy and the dialogue sometimes wooden. For me, the entertainment value of the movie came not from trying to figure out the convoluted plot but rather trying to unravel the mystery of where the filmmakers were getting their ideas from.