Does Downey hit a “Holmes” run as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective?
Growing up in England and reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes, scanning 1960s English comic books featuring Holmes-influenced characters, and watching the eloquently shrouded Holmes in umpteen TV shows and films, one can become attached to the Holmes that was. Comparing the original Victorian Holmes with the new DARK KNIGHT-inspired Holmes portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the SHERLOCK HOLMES is like contrasting the early Dr. Who portrayals by William Hartnell and Tom Baker (1963-1981) to the subsequent new millennium Dr. Who incarnations embodied by Christopher Eccleston, David Tenant, and now Matt Smith. As a traditionalist, I lean toward the originals, because those visions reflect an honesty of creation and character over glitz and glamour, without appeasing the convictions of the self and bowing to the weakness of ego.
Part of this contemporary shtick – a Holmes wrapped in scruff, filth, and addiction – consists of suggesting that Holmes and Watson are more than mere flatmates: their relationship includes hints of homosexuality – the cinematic clues are hidden within the riddled words of the gypsy soothsayer who ruminates to Watson and Holmes in a desolate back street of London.
SHERLOCK HOLMES opens with a display of somewhat macabre sensibility: as denizen of the dark arts Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) is about to perform the last of a series of ritualistic murders, Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) burst in to rescue the latest victim and defeat the black magic master. As Blackwood is about to bow to the broken neck fate of the hangman’s gallows, he warns Holmes that he welcomes death as part of his new life. In fact, Blackwood’s day of execution will further darken the soot-laden skies of 1890 London, which is just recovering from the ominous cloud created by another evil criminal, Jack the Ripper. When Blackwood seemingly makes good on his promise, his apparent resurrection panics London and confounds Scotland Yard (so named because it was built on land owned by Scottish Kings). In keeping with contemporary banter, the Yard calls in their, “Holmie.”
Although the look of SHERLOCK HOLMES captures the grittiness of 1890 London, Downey’s new fangled portrayal of the great detective abandons the traditiona, Victorian-English aspects of Holmes in favor of a brazen, impertinent and abrasively jealous take on the character. Also missing is Holmes’s signature quote, “Elementary my dear Watson.” At least Downey’s English accent was far superior to Kevin Kostner’s Robin Hood Nottingham lilt in ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991).
However, there is an interestingly novel element of SHERLOCK HOLMES that does derive from the literature but has rarely been fleshed out on screen. Besides being a habitual cocaine user, Conan Doyle’s Holmes was a practitioner of a mystical fighting art that was introduced in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” in which Holmes returns, apparently from the dead, and reveals that he did not go over the Reichenbach Falls with Professor Moriarty at the end of “The Final Problem.” Instead, Holmes escaped the death grip of his arch nemesis by using a self-defense system known as baritsu. It is interesting how veins of Fant-Asia have circulated into something that is seemingly non-Asian.
In case it may have slipped anyone’s mind, Fant-Asia was the term coined in the early 1990s to describe the genre of Hong Kong martial arts films made during the 1980s up to the mid-‘90s, which uniquely combined elements of sex, fantasy, sci-fi, and horror with high-flying wire work and over-the-top martial arts choreography. Since then, the term has grown to include just about any Asian genre film that has one or more of the aforementioned elements, whether or not it includes martial arts. To paraphrash one of Holmes’ famous sayings, “What is afoot here?” In other words, what is Asian about SHERLOCK HOLMES?
After the fall of the Tokugawa Shogun, Emperor Meiji opened Japan’s door to Western science, technology and military weapons during a period of Japan’s history known as the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). Baritsu is a martial art created in 1898 by Edward William Barton-Wright, a British engineer who lived in Japan for three years during the Meiji Restoration. Barton-Wright studied jujitsu and upon his return to England presented his knowledge as a new self defense system named partially after his Barton namesake and partially after jujitsu, thus “bartitsu,” later shortened in the press to baritsu by way of a reporter’s misspelling of the art. Apparently, Conan Doyle was so enamored of the fighting art, that he made Holmes a practitioner. Thus, in a sense, very British Holmes contains an element of Asian influence.
Conan-Doyle also subliminally included something rather Asian in his original conception of Holmes, something that could be seen as the foundation for the characteristic calm of the detective’s demeanor. It is rooted and hidden in Conan Doyle’s interest in the mysticism of India, specifically the meditative sound of “ohm.” The Cockney accent of East London would pronounce “Holmes” without the “H,” thereby calling the centered detective “Olmes.” How incredible it is it that Fant-Asia has been alive and well and lurking beneath the facade of Victorian England’s most famous detective since 1887, the year the first Sherlock story A Study in Scarlet was published.
Happy New Year everybody, a new decade of Fant-Asia is arriving.