The literary legend Sherlock Holmes never really got credit as an action hero, although fisticuffs weren't beneath him. The Baker Street sleuth is usually portrayed in movies as a violin-playing deep thinker more likely to grab his Calabash pipe than a weapon to solve a mystery. • Director Guy Ritchie would then seem an unlikely choice to bring Holmes to a new generation, his previous films so frantically violent that heroes don't have much time to think, much less deduce anything. Yet Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes conquers that contradiction in the very first scene, melding a myth and modern filmmaking into something so right that it should've been done before. • It's so elementary: Holmes, played with furious flair by Robert Downey Jr., is on the job as the movie begins, prowling London alleyways pursuing a cad and a couple of bounders. He senses a villain just around the corner, taking a minute to silently size up his opponent without seeing him, using only the tiniest clues.
Holmes imagines what it will take to incapacitate the bad guy: a punch to his deaf ear, a thrust to the throat, a jaw punch, a kick in the gut and then a knee-buckling coup de gras. As he thinks, Ritchie shows what Holmes imagines he'll do, in the kind of slow-motion violence marking Snatch and RocknRolla before. Then Holmes leaps from the darkness and does it all in real time, a few seconds of predetermined mayhem working exactly as he planned.
With that scene, we know this Sherlock Holmes is still an excellent, observant detective. We also know he can kick some major butt. Old, meet the new. From that point, Ritchie can do just about anything — except one clunky miscasting — and audiences will happily tag along for the ride.
It helps immensely that Downey is here, playing devil-may-care as few actors do. His Holmes is too smart for the room and doesn't easily suffer anyone in it. Thoughts tumble from his brain through his lips with such insolent confidence that there's no question why he's not a popular guy. He's a despondent sort, with a man crush on his assistant Dr. Watson (Jude Law), who's planning to get engaged.
Downey is terrific in the role, except that his aggressively English accent and the velocity of his line deliveries occasionally muddle information we're expected to hear. But nobody except Iron Man could be counted upon to make superhuman skills seem so ordinary, and serious events so funny. His introductory dinner with Watson's girlfriend, using powers of deduction to humiliate her but not entirely, is a brisk peek inside the way Holmes' mind works, and rationalizes being wrong on occasion.
There's no Professor Moriarty to threaten London this time around (just wait for the sequel that's sure to come) but Holmes and Watson uncover a corker of a scheme. Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) is dabbling in dark arts, leaving a trail of corpses sacrificed to his favorite demon. Blackwood is captured and apparently executed but evidence suggests that he has risen from his crypt. The plot stretches all the way to Parliament, with Holmes and Watson always one step behind.
Sherlock Holmes is a rousing action flick with noticeable flaws, especially Rachel McAdams playing Holmes' former lover, a con woman whose intentions never quite come into focus. She sticks out of the proceedings like a daintily powdered sore thumb.
Thankfully, McAdams isn't on screen as much as her popularity might demand. We're able to sit back and enjoy a rolling boulder of a movie that doesn't always follow the best course but can't be stopped.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.