Recasting Holmes in a more modern context might lead to mixed results - when done right (as in Steven Moffatt & Mark Gatiss' BAFTA-winning series), it has the same thrill and excitement as the Canon; but some efforts have led to mixed results (for example, some people dislike the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies from the 1940s, although I would argue that they do have a strong appeal)
But one of the better modern "takes" on Holmes seems more like a pastiche, but 1998's Zero Effect is a great example of "recasting" Holmes and Watson in modern times....with "modern times" a synonym for "1990s Los Angeles & Portland".
It would be easy to simply write this movie off as pastiche, with Bill Pullman's "Darryl Zero" and Ben Stiller's "Steve Arlo" as merely renamed versions of Holmes and Watson and the plot derived rather heavily from A Study in Scarlet. But scratch the surface, and you will see that writer/director Jake Kasdan (in his first feature) has managed to channel Doyle's sense of atmosphere and drive into the movie, providing a great lost example of "translating" Holmes for the modern audience.
First, there's the sense of atmosphere - Kasdan makes 1990s Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon come alive visually - there's very little of the cliche "hard boiled" atmosphere within Los Angeles (although some the dialogue may reflect later Holmes works), and Portland settings (some of which are rather unique) seem visually stunning. (A key sequence at a planetarium stands out as a great cinematic moment). Throughout the movie, Kasdan is able to channel Conan Doyle's ability to create atmosphere, as well as his narrative drive. (Granted, the movie has a relatively low-key tone, but it's the kind of movie that lingers in one's consciousness after viewing).
Most importantly, however, Kasdan's script shares Conan Doyle's knack for characterization through dialogue. It's sharp, incisive, and almost seems plagiarized from Conan Doyle himself. The Internet Movie Database lists a variety of quotes: let me choose a few and let you judge for yourself:
It's an uncompromising standard of his practice. He never meets any of his clients. He doesn't speak with them, or, for that matter, communicate in any direct fashion. That's his policy. But I am his sole representative and he is my only employer; and as such, I have full authorization to speak on his behalf on all his matters of business. I have with me a signed letter to that effect. He doesn't negotiate his fee. He works at a flat rate. Under some unusual circumstances, he'll work pro bono - never in between.
Passion is the enemy of precision. Forget the misnomer 'crime of passion'. All crime is passionate. It's passion that moves the criminal to act, to disrupt the static inertia of morality. The client's passion for this dead woman had facilitated his downfall. And the blackmailer's passion will facilitate hers. When you live with no passion at all, other people's passion come into glaring relief.
Zero Effect is a movie that has great personal resonance for me - it was the last theatrical movie I saw before leaving Chicago for the first time, and was one of the first movies I blogged about. Youthful enthusiasm notwithstanding, it's a film I try to see at least once a year - it not only contains some great nods towards the canon, but also contains some much deeper - and more profound - emotional truths.
This is a film that is well worth seeking out, and can be enjoyed by Sherlockians and non-Sherlockians alike. Have you seen it? Share your thoughts below.
Editor's note: Gordon regularly covers the intersection of Sherlock Holmes and the entertainment industry. You can also find him at Blog THIS, Pal! and Comic Related.