How do they get the cameras up there?

Directed by Guy Ritchie

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams

I watched Sherlock Holmes with expectations lowered—knowing that maybe if the film managed to surprise me a few times, or if Robert Downey could work his (almost undefinable) charm, I’d probably leave satisfied.

Well, I can report that my plan worked. When the movie ended, I didn’t feel like I had donated two hours that I would never recover. Downey was indeed his usual watchable self. (I watched one season of “Ally McBeal” just to observe him in action—and yes, those likely are hours that could have been better spent), Jude Law was the movie’s secret weapon, while, unfortunately, Rachel McAdams, Notebook Girl, the actress I always think is Anne Hathaway, looked she had shown up in Victorian London after jumping on the wrong flight at LAX.

But still there was a vague unease and I realized it had set in somewhere around the third act—that feeling that you are being set up for a big action climax because, yes, that’s how big Hollywood films are supposed to work. But it didn’t feel like something to anticipate. It more felt like something to be endured.

And, before you knew it, there was Sherlock himself, duking it out at, of all places, the very top of the unfinished London Bridge. A new rule: If an unfinished landmark is introduced in the first act, the movie’s protagonist will find himself upon it in the third. Remember this if you should ever witness Nicolas Cage in historical garb anywhere near an incomplete Washington Monument.

Epic climaxes, of course, aren’t new. Star Wars is credited with reviving the blockbuster, but I wonder if it didn’t also jump-start the idea that every ending had to be bigger than the last, that Army A had to take on Legion B. (It’s one reason why The Empire Strikes Back is the better film, it reduces and humanizes the scale of the conflict—and why the third firm, the Return of the Jedi, is a failure.) Star Wars didn’t invent the Big Ending, of course. Bond films were almost rote in the way that the Royal Navy, or some sort of fighting force would show up at the end. (Space marines in Moonraker. Anyone? Anyone?)

Space Marines!

But I tend to think the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which, all right, I will now admit, I really couldn’t get into.) and The Matrix trilogy (more time that ain’t coming back) upped the stakes so much that pumped-up endings aren’t even enjoyable any longer, they’re simply inevitable. I was reminded of these while seeing, earlier this month with my daughter, the animated Alpha and Omega, a film about two different kinds of wolves who, through shared adventures, find that they have more in comm—oh, I can’t even finish that sentence. And I checked my phone most of the time anyway.

The sub-plot in the film is how these two warring clans (packs?) of wolves are competing for the same territory and as the third act approaches, we can see that we are in for a grand clash of Sharks and Jets. It comes, with the additional twist of a cattle stampede thrown in for good measure.

It’s like “Saving Private Ryan” but with wolves.

None of it felt thrilling—and I expect my daughter felt similarly. She just wanted to focus on the boy wolf and the girl wolf. (Not to future self: Keep boy wolves away.) I’m fairly sure the action sequences were a form of demographic insurance to keep boys riveted in their seats. The whole film felt committee-assembled in the same way those Sony ads that feature Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake do.  I wonder how many combinations of celebrities the marketing gurus at Sony played with? Queen Latifah and Jet Li? LeBron James and Michael Cera? Lady Gaga and the Octupus that Picks World Cup Winners? My friend Tom recently saw Legend of the Guardians with his daughters. He said it was “Gladiator, except with owls.”*

Sherlock Holmes didn’t have to end as it did. It’s just lazy, committee-driven filmmaking. Plenty of action films can end in more subtle ways. I was reminded of this watching Ronin (1998), directed by John Frankenheimer, a film I’ve long defended from the haters. (For some reason, when you mention this movie to some people, a look crosses their face as if they swallowed a bug.) Ronin’s action sequences—mainly two terrific high speed car chases in France—take place in the middle. The ending, like Sherlock Holmes, involves a two-man chase but ends in a more sudden and quieter way. Which is another way of saying it doesn’t end with two characters suspended hundreds of feet in the air.  (The two-man chase ending, admittedly, is its own form of action movie cliché—just off the top of my head, the ending to Ronin is similar to Heat and to Bullitt.)

I admire Ronin because it has a certain efficiency to it. It’s all business. And Jean Reno and Robert DeNiro make the most of a David Mamet-written script. The stunt work is all real–no CGI. It’s a simply a well-crafted thriller, like the European autos that race through the picture. The action sequences, if anything, are understated. There are no five-minute fistfights. No explosions. The story is about professionals doing their work and it was made in the same fashion. (And Natascha McElhone, who puts the rrrr in IRA.)

You remembered to get the loss/damage waiver, correct?

Sherlock Holmes, as Arthur Conan Doyle created him, was the ultimate professional, doing his job with the kind of cool detachment that DeNiro and Reno have in Ronin. But the film jettisons this in favor of bare-knuckle brawling and large-scale set pieces. (At one point, a steamship under construction rolls over Downey and sinks into the Thames.)  Modern computer graphics make today’s films more unreal–Guy Ritchie’s London was a fantasy world, a Blade Runner pocket universe.

I understand why Sherlock had to be the kind of movie it was. It was a blockbuster. It was a tentpole. It was a franchise. Yada. Yada. But where that have made sense for Iron Man, it all came off as vaguely ridiculous for a crime-buster in 1890s London to be engaged in high-altitude stuntwork. I’m looking forward to the sequel, which I expect to involve Jules Verne and likely will be partially set in outer space.

* since this post qualifies as a lot of “back in my day” bitching, seems fitting to also mention what an unsatisfying experience the modern cinemaplex has become unless you are seeing the hot picture of the moment. With popcorn, we paid about 30 bucks to sit in a small room with a tiny screen. That’s not why you go the movies. One of my best cinematic experiences I can recall was seeing Casablanca on the large screen at the Drexel Theater in Columbus as a teenager. It’s growing harder and harder to replicate that environment.

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