Michael Caine & Ben Kingsley are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in director Thom Eberhardt’s enjoyable rework of the popular characters.
You can have few complaints seeing the names Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley above a movie poster. In 1988, they teamed up for Thom Eberhardt’s comic reworking of Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes, reversing the traditional roles to have Dr. Watson (Kingsley) the brains behind the crime-busting pairing and Holmes (Caine) the bumbling sidekick.
Watson, in order to progress his medical career, has hidden his passion (and ability) for solving mysteries in Victorian-era London by creating the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes and has an actor play the man in public spaces. But Holmes has become so famous he has stolen Watson’s thunder and now the master sleuth wants to retire his creation in order to reveal the real genius. However, it proves harder than he thought. The police and the public are equally unprepared for such revelation, hindering Watson’s latest investigation with unanimous calls for Sherlock Holmes, and when arch-enemy Professor Moriarty emerges, the doctor knows he’ll need the helping hand of his sidekick to solve the mystery.
Kingsley and Caine are two great actors whose qualities have endured over so many years. Without A Clue was released over two decades ago and yet at the time the pairing had over 30 years combined experience between them. The real treat watching the film is seeing the two of them have so much fun with the material. Caine certainly enjoys the funniest moments playing an often inebriated, somewhat cowardly performer whose fame is completely in debt to Kingsley’s Dr. Watson. The younger actor and star of Gandhi is forced to play Watson straight, the calculated deductions and quick wits we associate with a typical Sherlock Holmes adaptation are neatly repositioned. But Kingsley, like the character he plays, is left shadowing the burly figure of Caine. Holmes might have lost his super-sleuthing powers but Caine’s substituted it with an off-kilter charisma that wouldn’t feel out of place on a boozy countryside holiday alongside Withnail and I.
Yet, director Eberhardt is far happier conjuring a comedy set piece than offering any sense of mystery, suspense or real danger. Indeed, Without A Clue isn’t really bothered with “whodunit”. Any attempt at murder-mystery is haphazardly handled while a plot twist, although effective, becomes another excuse for an admittedly funny sight gag. Moreover, Paul Freeman as Moriarty is suitably camp but otherwise forgettable.
So clearly the film’s strengths lie in its two leads. Eberhardt, whose career prior to the film was noted only for the 1980s cult sci-fi horror Night of the Comet perhaps recognises his strengths and allows the actors to have as much fun with the roles as possible. Certainly, the film is at its best when trying to be funny and it usually hits the mark, particularly when it concerns Caine in a state of distress.
Without A Clue scores points for trying to do something different with Conan Doyle’s fiction but as a crime-solving mystery it fails to engage. Moreover, while it favours comedy set pieces (many of which are very funny), because it pays little attention to the machinations of solving the crime, there’s something un-Sherlock Holmes about it. Thus, when it isn’t making you laugh, there’s very little to hold the attention. And ultimately, despite Watson’s best efforts, it’s Holmes who still steals the limelight.