Sherlock Holmes (Ritchie, 2009)

Part slapstick comedy, part action extravaganza, Guy Ritchie’s popcorn period-piece Sherlock Holmes visualizes the titular super-detective (Robert Downey Jr.) as a ramshackle genius with massive physical cunning and shoddy grooming habits. On the brink of losing best friend and colleague Dr. Watson (Jude Law) to a woman, Holmes languishes in his cavernous flat, stymieing both Watson’s conquest and his personal mental development. The filmmakers upset the quagmire with a plodding, elongated story concerning a supernatural sleeper-cell cult, reinvigorating Holmes and Watson’s relationship and forcing them to save all of Britain, hell the entire world for that matter! It’s often ludicrous, but intoxicating to say the least.

Sherlock Holmes pushes and pulls between fluffy diversion and ridiculous rehash, and ironically Holmes himself seems to mimic this occasionally indifferent cinematic focus. Every major character, from hero to villain, grooves without a sense of doubt or urgency, eagerly tripping over plot points to fill generic roles or participate in good old fashioned foreshadowing. This gives the film a breezy feel, something unexpectedly refreshing in this sort of compressed, hyperbolic genre. Faithful or not, Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock bristles with dangerous charm and skill, a great anchor for what turns out to be a one-note film. Watching Holmes and Watson verbally spar inspires enough reason to momentarily bypass the glaring plot holes and lacking cinematic tangibles. Both pummel with words and finish with fists, men of violent action more than meticulous detectives.

In his Hollywood blockbuster debut, Ritchie rightfully shoots for the middle of the vest, inserting just enough dynamism in the straightforward aesthetic approach. Seeing how some of his previous efforts immediately flail out of control, it’s not necessarily a bad decision. Ritchie always displays a reflexive visual ambition directly tied to character traits and motivation. In Sherlock Holmes, he slyly sneaks elaborate shots into surprisingly subtle places, favoring a bit of restraint instead of overwhelming with his patented frenetic visuals. The breakneck opening action scene provides an excellent example of Richie’s gaze, a chase scene where pacing and composition dispel with dialogue and context. It’s an exciting introduction to this particularly dank vision of late 19th century London, revealing the intriguing shadow play between elitist deception and common man justice while expanding the dangerous ideologies waiting to spin their webs on the apathetic and weak.

But Ritchie cannot sustain this interesting dichotomy for long, ultimately relegating the film to a standard series of mysteries, romances, and redemptions. These generic conventions all lead toward a benign “surprise” finale, not surprisingly setting up invariable sequels. Most regrettably, Ritchie’s kinetic revision inevitably panders to the vices of modern Hollywood mediocrity, littering the narrative with cheesy twists and flashy fight scenes, willingly and knowingly ignoring the depths of many characters. Sherlock Holmes skillfully hooks the audience into a boisterous groove, only to burn the momentum with hollow technological effects and dim characterizations. But despite the inconsequential overall result, Downey, Jr. and Ritchie do create a lasting mixture of burning charm and rage with this conflicted Holmes, a fitting mantle for the iconic character to hang his weighty bowler hat.

Tropic Thunder (Stiller, 2008)

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Maybe I’m numb from all the terrible American comedies released this year. How can any viewer go unscathed after the recent lineup of Baby MamaGet Smart, Zohan, Pineapple Express, and even Kung Fu Panda, those with blatant lack of vision, cohesiveness, and most notably laughs. Not to mention the countless Strange Wilderness‘ I’ve purposefully dodged. Apparently there’s plenty of lazy filmmaking to go around. So maybe this context lends Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder a striking advantage. A thunderous punch to Hollywood’s gluttonous gut, Tropic Thunder turns the film about filmmaking sub-genre into a gory, raucous, and hilarious romp through the jungle. Downey Jr., Stiller, and Black take the extreme version of their public images and cleverly unearth the humanity aching beneath the make-up and ego. Stiller defuses the illusion of stardom and celluloid by breaking these caricatures down in brutal ways. And Tropic Thunder, behind expert cameraman John Toll, feels like a vintage Vietnam War film that just happens to be a biting satire.

Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)

Cinematic spring has bloomed into summer, turning the annual distribution wheel toward that moment in time when Hollywood unleashes the big guns, maximum profit films bent on luring suspecting children/tweens/grown men into the multiplexes for thrill rides and extraneous dialogue. Growing up an avid action fan, I understand the allure. As a young lad, I once reveled in the well-constructed, visceral excitement of films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Speed, and yes, Independence Day. But I’ve also experienced the horrors of Wild Wild West, Pearl Harbor, and Swordfish, not to mention countless other plagues my once impressionable mind couldn’t shake. In retrospect, the rotten apples have far outweighed the golden eggs.

Despite the countless disasters and disappointments, the summer movie season still represents something undeniably special for the child-like spirit inside me. The nostalgic twist I feel every May has only heightened the recent failures of the past few summer seasons, where big budget extravaganza’s have seemingly hit rock bottom, savagely and consistently disappointing viewers while flogging them with high octane, anti-story experiences flushed with bigger, louder, and more inane special effects (the penultimate example being Transformers). It’s tough to find any redeeming facets amidst these mind-boggling visual fire-bombings.

Thankfully Iron Man, the entertaining and smart opening punch of summer season 08, is wonderfully different. While the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it’s the type of blockbuster that makes the cynic in me remember the gleeful light Hollywood can shine when combining the right elements. The film represents a strange and potentially historic industry packaging job: a famous comic book, helmed by a B performer turned A director, and anchored by a conflicted method actor playing a conflicted super hero. The exciting result, like Christopher Nolan’s superb Batman Begins, uses character development as its narrative foundation while framing a super hero origin story through the kinetic lens of strategically placed and potent visual effects.

Iron Man envisions a high tech world where weapons technology rules the roost, no matter if you’re the American Government/Big Business or Taliban-esque freedom fighters. In fact, throughout the film billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) seems to be a medium between the two sides, a corporate puppeteer childishly unaware of the horrifying actions occurring just off the screen until his own life gets violently and fantastically engaged. It’s this guilt of inaction that drives Stark, and in turn Downey Jr.’s slyly comedic and nuanced performance.

And so Stark traverses (quite brilliantly in his Hot Rod Red and Yellow get-up) through a battle between conscience and power, on one side the brutal legacy of his father (epitomized by Jeff Bridges’ benign baddie) and on the other an individual philanthropy based on fantastic and violent deflection – of evil, greed, and corporate gluttony – for those unable to do so themselves. During the excellent end sequence Stark uproots his destructively apathetic ways forever, making good on the thematic promises the film and its character have made throughout.

One could almost overemphasize Downey Jr.’s achievement, given that he’s been known as the ultimate roller coaster ride of seriousness, talent, and tragedy. Seeing him succeed is definitely fulfilling. But director Jon Favreau’s decision to cast Downey Jr. in the first place seems to be the real coup of Iron Man. Hollywood often makes idiotic casting choices in the name of mass appeal, putting obviously bland actors in roles simply to appease the supposed demographic at stake (Nicholas Cage in Ghost Rider for example), instead of taking a chance on a more ingenious, albeit risky choice who might be better suited for the role. No such flub here.

Maybe the next three months will again merely amount to a sea of hype leading a starved viewing public nowhere. But at least Iron Man has made an initial dent in my own apathetic qualms with Hollywood; keeping fresh in mind the possibility mainstream fare can both engage and entertain. If only this amazingly rare feat were the status quo.