Sherlock Holmes and Jonah Hex

>> Saturday, May 14, 2011

I was at a conference this past week. This meant that I was in a hotel room, which meant that there was a television with cable. This isn't a small deal: I have a television at home, but it's old and the only thing it's plugged into is the DVD player. I was in a hotel room with television and cable and I was feeling horribly uninspired and unable to write, and there this mad device was, right there in front of the bed you could lie on with a glass of Baker's bourbon on the rocks, passively watching crap on the telly.

So I watched some crap on the telly.

Which wasn't entirely a bad thing, either, aside from the lack of getting words on a screen, I mean. At least one of the pieces of crap I watched was one I might otherwise have rented. I was a huge Jonah Hex fan as a kid, or maybe "admirer" would be a better word because I only remember having one late-'70s comic and regrettably missed the issues Joe Lansdale wrote in the 1990s (when I technically was no longer a kid, but still). (Also, Joe Lansdale is seriously one of the greatest horror writers in the History Of Ever, and if you're not familiar with any of his work, you really need to check it out.) Anyway, I have a deep and abiding fondness for that scarred-up cowboy, and I would rent the 2010 Jona Hex in spite of its terrible reviews but for the fact that I watched the last half of it in a hotel room in Raleigh, NC, and now I don't have to.

In almost the same breath, I have to mention that the following evening I saw the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, or all of it except the first five minutes of it, and while I wasn't actually planning on renting that one (in spite of another lifelong fondness for the character--renting every Sherlock Holmes movie ever made would take me more years than I'm likely to have left on this Earth, and I have no intention of departing anytime soon), again, now I don't have to.

So this hotel-room television with cable saved me, like, $6.98 or something like that. $7.98, maybe. Or several hours of download/upload time on a torrent site if I wanted to be unscrupulous and was just that intent on seeing either of these movies, neither of which was any good for many of the same reasons.

That's not really fair to Sherlock Holmes, which at least has the dubious virtue of being competently made by people who seem to have cared after a fashion for what they're doing, as opposed to Jonah Hex, which comes off as an out-of-control project made incompetently by a lot of people who were sort of indifferent to the project at some point. Sherlock Holmes isn't mailed in by anybody, you can say that much for it, if you care to say anything about a movie that is so bland and uninspired that it doesn't really deserve to be talked about too much. Which is the irony of what I'm writing, actually: I don't have anything to write about today and Sherlock Holmes is mildly annoying, so here I am writing a review of a pair of movies that wouldn't be worth the trouble if writing this blog post happened to be particularly troublesome. And I'm not sure if that gives you any reason to read this, dear reader, but we might as well be candid about the stakes, eh?

So, anyway, what these movies have in common, at least, is that they are a pair of depressingly bleh action movies built loosely around pop culture brand names, with notable actors in the leads and lots of money spent on depressingly unconvincing CGI, not just in the depressingly inevitable and uninspired obligatory fight scenes but in the underwhelming and standard-issue blue/grey re-creations of the 19th Century settings these depressingly contemporary movies are ostensibly set in. You may have noticed a lack of variety in the adverbs employed in the previous sentence, a theme or motif, if you will. Hex and Holmes are depressing movies, the kinds of movies that leave one prone with one's booze turning to water in one hand and an unused remote control in the other, wondering when, exactly, the mass-suicide of pop culture took place.

Or maybe I'm depressed because I never thought I would reach a point in my life when I was sick of action movies. Which is an inaccurate statement. I'm sick of the action movies everybody with the possible exception of Christopher Nolan is making these days. And classic action movies? My appetite for From Russia With Love, for instance, remains unwhettable. Gosh, I could possibly watch that movie several nights in a row, it's clever and bright and fun and remains interesting on several viewings, as opposed to the pair of adventure films I watched this week, which weren't interesting on one viewing.

I wasn't terribly irritated by Jonah Hex, possibly because of all the shit reviews it got during the week it was in theatres or possibly because, as much as I may love the guy, he's still (at the end of the day) just a comic book cowboy. I mean, one doesn't go into a movie like that with high hopes, know what I mean?

But Holmes annoyed me. Okay, I'll admit it wasn't a film I had any interest in to start with at all. But with such low expectations, I might have enjoyed it more; I didn't find it bad enough to turn off, would be another way to put it, and watched it through to the end even though I was ready to have dinner about thirty minutes before the inevitable fight in perilous places. As I said before, it was competent.

The thing is, see, Sherlock Holmes (note the lack of italics--we're talking about the character) is as good an example as any as to why a healthy public domain is vital to pop culture. I know some critics were irked by an American playing Holmes as an action hero in an action movie, feeling that was "unfaithful" to a character who has been portrayed in various media (off the top of my head, here, and not an exhaustive list) as a sulky teen, a somewhat addled old man, a complete nincompoop, a psychologically-damaged drug addict, an underground terrorist/assassin, a robot, a time traveler, and a space traveler in adventures set in various centuries in which he's gone against criminals, Nazis, aliens, Jack The Ripper, cthuloid monstrosities from other planets/dimensions, devils, demons, holograms, Dracula, the existential terror of 20th Century industrial mass murder and has been teamed up with superheroes, spies, astronauts, chrononauts--a lot of these portrayals, naturally, being worse than anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever came up with and more than a few of them being better, and not a lot of point in complaining about fidelity to the stories or character at this stage in the game. And if Sherlock Holmes (the movie, now) took extensive liberties with Sherlock Holmes (the character) and friends, gods know the movie might be as entertaining as Young Sherlock Holmes or Without A Clue (not a good movie at all, but a guiltily pleasurable one) or even any of those Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes where Brent Spiner dressed in Holmsian drag and matched wits with the Enterprise's holodeck.

But the 2009 Holmes doesn't take any liberties, naturally, nor does it bother overmuch with fidelity. Put another way, it has neither the qualities that made the Basil Rathbone films entertaining nor the Jeremy Brett series enjoyable. No, the Robert Downey, Jr. Holmes adaptation goes for a safe, middle-of-the-road, let's not piss off any of the merchants approach; there are times the 2009 Holmes almost looks like it wants to riff on the (old) idea that Holmes and Watson are, in fact, gay lovers, but any time Downey and co-star Jude Law start getting a little too fey, somebody remembers that an action-adventure movie about a gay couple might lead to some family values organization protesting McDonald's or Burger King or whomever it is who's going to be selling the Sherlock Holmes glasses and kid's meals (Taco Bell, maybe), and God knows, we wouldn't want that, would we? And that's as brave as the movie gets, really. There's also a brief moment when it looks for about three milliseconds like they're going to kill off Watson, which would be a bit interesting, wouldn't it, but in the next scene Watson's in bed and the next scene he has a little scarf serving as a sling and then the next scene after that the sling's completely gone (he was just in an explosion, mind you, one of those enormous action movie explosions whose equivalent in real life would flay exposed skin, melt clothing into boiling flesh everywhere else, ignite hair, rupture eardrums, shatter bones, and generally be a complete catalogue of multiple horrible fatalities, but that in action movies--yawn--causes one to wobble a bit in slow motion while one's hair gets temporarily mussed, unless one happened to have enough advance notice to be leaping--again in slow motion--away from the Explosive Event Of No Real Consequence).

That approach is consistent throughout, really: Holmes is the most Goldilocks movie I think I've seen in years, careful to be inoffensive and anxiously skipping away from anything that might turn away anybody in its ceaseless effort to entertain a wide holiday audience without risking its middle-of-the-road PG-13 rating. Here's a movie that references Holmes' cocaine use (because you have to have that for the Holmes fans) in a way that's so glancingly obscure that there's no way a parent could get upset on behalf of his or her preciouses' innocence being despoiled. Ditto for any sexual tension between Holmes and Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), whose inclusion in the movie can really only be described as another sop to fans (sure, she's important to the plot--and she could pretty much be any pretty woman on Earth with an alleged history with Sherlock Holmes, said history being another bit of generic Hollywood shorthand, because why else would Sherlock Holmes be interested in solving a mystery unless there was a generic, sexless, bloodless romantic subplot attached to it). There are supernatural elements, but nothing too supernatural, and there's a mystery, but nothing too puzzling or convoluted--yep, a nice middle balance, not too hot and not too cold. Suspense (but not too exciting) and humor (but not too funny) and drama (but not too serious) and the whole thing could be enjoyed by a very dull and boring eight-year-old, or (more likely) his dull and boring parent who is concerned that anything too violent might make him uncontrollable and anything too clever might bore him and anything too romantic might trigger puberty early and anything too exciting might keep him up at night. Or, perhaps most likely: this is a movie carefully calibrated for a committee of studio executives who have in mind a hypothetical parent like the one just described, with a hypothetical eight-year-old (ditto), and these film execs Sherlock Holmes was made to placate aren't so much worried about whether the product is any good but whether alienating anyone with the product will damage the tie-ins and toys and fast food promotions and the opportunities to make the whole thing a franchise to sell all this crap to the general public.

And that's depressing.

I mean, it's not like the committee that manufactured Sherlock Holmes (and the one that assembled Jonah Hex) is the first group of people to make a movie solely to make money. It's called "the film industry" for a reason, right? But it at least seems like it used to be that someone had the idea that the way to make the money was to make the best movie you could with whatever you had to work with, and then people would want to see it because, you know, it was a good film. I mean, you look at the background to the making of A Hard Day's Night, and basically the movie got made because United Artists had a record division that was losing money and the studio execs wanted primarily to make a movie that would sell a soundtrack album (they'd be able to work out a licensing deal with whomever the band was signed to--UA was able to get The Beatles interested, so they made a mutually advantageous arrangement with EMI/Parlophone); but while it was considered sort of incidental as to whether the movie was a lasting success, it wasn't incidental or optional that the movie be as good a low-budget toss-off as they could produce, and it almost went without saying that making a movie about that music all the kids were listening to was inherently, almost designedly going to alienate much of the film-going public (i.e. all the old people complaining about all that racket the kids these days listen to).

Okay, so probably nobody immediately working on Sherlock Holmes and Jonah Hex was saying, "Fuck it, let's just get a take, put it in the can and do the next scene." Presumably, Robert Downey, Jr. and Josh Brolin wanted to make good, entertaining movies. I'm just not too convinced that anyone who was actually in charge cared whether these movies were all that good so long as they seemed likely to be financially successful, and in the case of Holmes it's pretty clear that they wanted to make sure the movie was one-hundred-percent safe and boring.

And I just don't know how many more of these lame-ass adventures in advertising I can take. It just brings me down, man.


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