Robert Downey Jr. solves the case of Sherlock Holmes

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I was a big Sherlock Holmes fan when I was a kid, but my fandom had more to do with the movies than with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Oh, I'd read a few collections and I still own a hardcover edition of The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes (featuring the entire Holmes canon as it originally appeared in London's The Strand magazine), but it was Basil Rathbone who first captured my imagination with a series of Holmes films produced from 1939-1946. (I caught them on New York's WPIX-11 TV station back in the 1980s. My favorites: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.) From those black-and-white classics I moved on to Nicholas Rowe in 1985's Stephen Spielberg-produced Young Sherlock Holmes — still my favorite treatment of Sherlock on film.

Director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, RocknRolla) made the very smart decision to cast Robert Downey Jr. as the consulting detective in his big-budget launch of what will surely be a Holmes franchise. Red-hot these days, Downey continues his winning streak and finds something fresh in the most old-fashioned of characters. Jude Law is along for the ride as Holmes' faithful assistant Dr. Robert Watson, and the leads share a winning chemistry that overcomes weaknesses in plot and special effects to make Sherlock Holmes an energetic and fun reinvention of a literary classic.

Downey and Law play Holmes and Watson like an old married couple, bickering fiercely now that Watson has announced his intentions to sever their working union and wed his girlfriend (Kelly Reilly). The duo has just wrapped up a case involving the shady Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a Satanist (or something) who pledges to rise from the dead and terrorize London just as soon as Scotland Yard gets around to hanging him. They do and he does, setting in motion a plot involving an ex-Holmes flame (Rachel McAdams) who's also an arch-criminal, secret occult societies and the highest reaches of British government.

As you may have guessed, the film isn't a literal translation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, Sherlock Holmes is a hodgepodge of story strands and character traits pulled from the collected works — I recognized one riff about a cane from Hound of the Baskervilles, I'm sure there were others — and blended with modern influences and whole new inventions. For example, the literary Holmes could and did fight, but I don't recall much fisticuffs in any previous incarnation of the character. This being a Guy Ritchie movie, I guess I should have expected it. The director shoots his violence in extreme slo-mo, detailing Holmes' thought process as he deduces the best way to cripple his opponent before unleashing the violence in quick bursts. The effect works.

The film walks a fine line between trying to satisfy Holmes purists and action-movie fans — and basically succeeds on both counts. For the former, 221B Baker Street is lovingly rendered, and I was glad to see Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) get significant screen time. (I guess ol' Sherlock's dalliance with the yayo was a little too strong for the PG-13 rating.) The action pieces, including streaking carriages racing through narrow London streets, a fight at the docks and a theater-rattling explosion, are mostly well-done, though I found a climactic showdown on a still-under-construction London Bridge compromised by unsatisfying digital effects.

And don't even bother trying to figure out the central mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. Any plot that requires the main character to take a few minutes out at the end to explain what the hell just happened isn't playing fair from the start. Still, as pure escapist entertainment, Sherlock Holmes is a winner. Credit the cast, especially Downey and Law, who turn a lot of nonsense into a high-spirited romp at the movies.

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