No Schlock, Sherlock: A Scandal in Tinseltown

What’s that deafening whirling sound?  Elementary, my dear reader: it’s author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spinning in his grave, as his character Sherlock Holmes gets the Hollywood treatment.  There’s a crude expression — “No s**t, Sherlock” — but that’s precisely what director Guy Ritchie has wrought, complete with anti-Semitism.  Of the 222-ish Holmes productions since 1900-ish, Ritchie’s is possibly the worst.  He and his scribbler desecrators — including X-Men and Harry Potter sequel co-writers — perpetrate literary plagiarism, pillaging and pilfering literature’s greatest detective with their big budget bomb Sherlock Holmes.

You don’t need the scientific sleuth’s powers of perception to deduce that Ritchie’s Holmes mostly resembles Doyle’s creation in name only.  The flick does have fleeting forensic references — Sherlock was the original crime scene investigator, and Warner Bros. desperately wants to lure CSI fans to the scene of this cinematic crime to recoup its squandered $80 million.  Ritchie’s high concept Holmes transforms the cerebral scrutinizer into an action hero — long on mindless violence, stunts, special effects and CGI gimmickry, it’s short on atmospherics and imagination.  Call it character assassination.

Not content to rip off one creator of an immortal British law enforcer, Ritchie and his word-slinging kleptomaniacs also loot Ian Fleming’s novels.  In their schlock Sherlock is more like a 19th-century James Bond than Doyle’s private eye, and they promiscuously shoplift from 007’s oeuvre.  Especially Goldfinger: Holmes‘ brutish Dredger (Robert Maillet) recalls Bond’s fearsome foe Oddjob, and the panic to prevent a WMD from detonating in London’s Parliament suggests the ticking atomic time bomb at Fort Knox.

But Guy Ritchie is no Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger’s director), just as Robert Downey Jr. is to Sherlock what George Lazenby  (a forgettable onetime Bond) is to 007, while Jude Law is to Dr. Watson what Edsels are to autos.  Compared to Doyle’s adventures Ritchie’s Holmes is what his laughable flop, the 2002 remake of Swept Away starring then-wife Madonna, is to Lina Wertmuller’s 1974 classic Swept Away. . .

Indeed, there’s more charm, characterization, ambiance and mystery in any short story Doyle penned than in Ritchie’s overblown dud.  Compounding matters, Holmes‘ Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) collaborates with nefarious Professor Moriarty, “the Napoleon of crime.”  According to Sherlock Holmes Society of Austin’s Sarah Ann Robertson, “Please.  Irene Adler was not a criminal, did not consort with criminals and certainly was not in league with Moriarty.”  Guy Marriott, President of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, adds: “No, Irene Adler (who appears in A Scandal in Bohemia) is a retired opera singer who had a liaison with the King of Bohemia, who seeks Holmes’ assistance to recover a photograph of the[m].  She’s not a criminal, or associated with criminals [or] Professor Moriarty.”

Holmes has the shamus and his sidekick wage a Victorian version of the “War on Terror,” battling Lord Blackwood’s (Mark Strong) Al-Qaeda-like cult, which practices human sacrifice and conspires to topple Britain’s government using IEDs, WMDs, etc.  Fair enough — Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who portrayed Holmes and Watson in 14 films from 1939-1946, fought Nazis in WWII movies such as Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon.  But the most egregiously offensive scene in Ritchie’s wretched excess is what may be the most despicable screen image of Jews in a Western film since Mel Gibson’s hook-nosed Christ killers The Passion of the Christ: during a gathering of the occult secret society what are or appear to be Hebrew letters are shown. 

The apparent linking of Jews to sinister scheming cabals that perpetrate blood sacrifice and world domination conspiracies is the vilest anti-Semitic stereotype perpetuated by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which the Anti-Defamation League calls “a classic in paranoid, racist literature.”  Its discredited lunacy has been propagated by hate mongers from Hitler to the Blackwood-like Osama Bin Laden.  Through Madonna Ritchie was associated with Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and it’s doubtful he deliberately slurred Jews.  Plus, Warner Bros. led Hollywood’s struggle against Nazism.  However, the fact that Hebrew or something that looks like it is onscreen when Holmes‘ fanatical conspirators meet reveals how grossly insensitive these filmmakers — who, willy-nilly, take liberties with a popular fictional character — are.  (At least Ritchie doesn’t call Sherlock “Shylock.”)  In the same way that a Honolulu-set scene with a Japanese-American dentist in 2001’s Pearl Harbor suggested treachery and played into the “sneaky backstabbing Jap” trope, moviemakers really owe it to audiences to avoid repeating celluloid stereotypes — especially blood libels.

Had these no-talent hacks produced work with dramatis personae bearing monikers they’d concocted, I wouldn’t object (except to any possible anti-Semitism).  But what’s particularly odious is Ritchie’s wrecking crew glomming onto a well-established brand it did nothing to create.  They’re deploying the same crowd pleasing formula Gibson used in The Passion of the Christ: exploit preexisting brand names (in Gibson’s case, history’s most famous man) and add violence.  (Intriguingly, both films seem to contain anti-Jewish references.)

Doyle’s first Sherlock story predates Ritchie’s birth by 80 years.  Since Ritchie’s unoriginal grave robbers couldn’t create a character of Holmes’ stature, they’ve exploited the work of a dead author unable to protect his literary legacy from profiteering plunderers.  (Matters regarding Doyle’s estate are complicated, but the author, who died in 1930, obviously never approved Ritchie’s hatchet job or received a farthing for it.)

Ticket-buyers should vote with their wallets, avoiding this dreck in theater, on DVD, or on TV.  They’ll be giving themselves a gift — saving them the admission price and from seeing a bigger dog than the hound of the Baskervilles.  Ritchie’s abominationends with Moriarty plotting against Holmes, so if viewers don’t patronize this schlocky Sherlock, they may get a bonus present — preventing the cultural barbarians at the gates from foisting misbegotten sequels upon moviegoers.  Bravo to Madonna for dumping Ritchie; hopefully audiences follow suit.  Stay home and read Doyle’s books instead.

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film critic/historian and author of Progressive Hollywood.  His Sherlock Holmes’ Swiss connections article is in the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Dec. 20, 2009 travel section.

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