Without a Clue (1988) — An upside-down Sherlock Holmes tale

“Mambo, mamba. What’s the difference?” “Well, very little, except that one is a deadly, poisonous snake, while the other is a rather festive Carribean dance.”

Justin’s rating: Elementary school, my dear Watson

Justin’s review: Among the greatly plundered works of domain-free IPs, Sherlock Holmes is easily in the top three. The first movie adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective came out in 1905 (!), with over 250 (!!) more movies since then. And that’s not including all of the TV shows, episodes, video games, books, and so on. So it is, as you might imagine, a little difficult to conjure up a new take on such a thoroughly explored character. Doesn’t mean that people will stop trying, of course.

Take 1988’s Without a Clue as one such semi-novel approach. The premise here is that it’s Dr. Watson (a tightly-wound Ben Kingsley) who is the true genius, while “Sherlock Holmes” is actually Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine), an actor and a lush who is hired to fill the role after the public becomes invigorated by Watson’s detective stories in the paper. The problem is that Reginald is vain and not terribly bright, often scraping through his public appearances by the skin of this teeth.

After one case doesn’t go according to Watson’s plan, he blows up and fires Reginald outright. Initially, Watson is excited to be free of the idiot and dreams of becoming known as “The Crime Doctor.” The problem is, nobody recognizes or respects him on his own, and he can’t seem to detach himself from his own runaway creation. Thus, a reluctant Watson is forced to convince Reginald to come back for one final case. Will they be able to reconcile and make their differences work to overcome one James Moriarty?

I shouldn’t have to tell you that Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine have incredible acting chops, both serious and comedic, and so to bring both to this tale feels like overkill. I’m not complaining, mind you, but it’s two award-winning actors giving their all to silly wordplay and exaggerated physical comedy. It raises the eyebrows, is all I’m saying.

And Without a Clue is most definitely a comedy first and a mystery adventure second. It often comes across like a play, with deadpan jokes flying left and right while sight gags litter the scenes. With Watson always trying to restrain Reginald and Reginald acting far out of his depth, there’s a sense of barely restrained chaos that could explode at any moment. It’s a buddy comedy of a most unusual sort.

I found it all more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. My reaction is most definitely tempered by my lack of interest in the Holmes mythos, but it didn’t help that the crime elements here aren’t that interesting at all. It’s kind of fun to watch Kingsley fly off the handle or Caine constantly hit on the ladies, but Without a Clue comes off as stuffy even so. Out of its time, in more ways than one. I blame the somewhat lame cinematography and boring soundtrack.

So chalk this up as a “your mileage may vary” based on how much you like Holmes and find this topsy-turvy premise appealing.

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