The game's afoot

Sherlock Holmes, head-cracking action hero? Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" is an audacious move away from the intricate plots and drawing-room repartee of versions gone by. This is a swashbuckling, pratfalling romp designed to make cerebral Holmes purists drop their monocles into their teacups.

It's rather overbearing, too wild and chaotic to hold together as a mystery. It has scatterbrained, shaggy-dog charm, though, thanks to Robert Downey Jr. at his most mischievous as Holmes.

Downey's prankish performance turns the cliche of the asexual, dignified sleuth on its head. This Holmes can wear decorum as a disguise but at heart he's a whirligig of flying fists, feet and weaponry. He's a thinker but also an incorrigible prankster and a dabbler in recreational drugs. In one silly scene he teaches a squadron of houseflies to zoom in formation while he's also clearly buzzed. Downey's approach to the role, with a funny hat and a leer, is a big, broad wink to the audience.

The film imagines a London of ritual murders, secret cults and fiendish criminal masterminds. It opens with a breakneck carriage chase over cobblestone streets to stop a human sacrifice in progress. The slickly hammy Mark Strong gives a sinister gloss to Lord Blackwood, the nasty man holding the dagger. He claims to possess mystical powers and has a plan, dastardly of course, for something approximating world domination. So threatening is his presence that Blackwood continues to bedevil our heroes even after he's executed and pronounced dead by Dr. Watson (Jude Law).

Watson is no foil but a full partner, soon to be an ex-partner. He and Holmes bicker like an old couple and when Holmes grows too obnoxious, Watson has no qualms about slugging him in the snoot. He's quitting the bro-mantic bachelor digs they shared at 221B Baker Street for marriage. Holmes, defiantly self-centered and funny, wants to sabotage his plans. There's nothing like investigating a plot to topple the Crown, seize the Empire and take back those upstart American colonies to bring old friends back together.

There's a bit of heterosexual flirting going on, too, with Rachel McAdams as Holmes' seductive nemesis, Irene Adler. They're made for each other: brilliant, egocentric, devious and undeniably hot. Their dance of distrust is like watching cobras mate.

Let's skip over the morass of a plot, a "Da Vinci Code" conspiracy involving a coven of occultist Aleister Crowley types, because I didn't understand it. Anyway, the chains of mystery, clue and solution are irrelevant. "Sherlock Holmes" is all about looks and movement.

Ritchie ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels") launched a series of sly cockney crime capers in the 1990s. He likes grime and teeming slums, and here he piles it on thick. Philippe Rousselot's cinematography and computer images create a dank Sweeney Todd London adjusting to the Industrial Age. Monumental construction projects are halfway built; the city is raw, muddy, unfinished. It's a messy place handsomely realized.

As for movement, it's Ritchie's specialty. He gives Downey several fights with a comically huge thug in which he improvises weapons out of whatever's within reach. As he ducks, punches and flings hammers uselessly against the muscleman's chest, Downey has the plucky frightened body language of a young Charlie Chaplin.

The only problem is Ritchie's missing sense of proportion. The battles start out at such a frenzy that the only way to achieve a big finish is to sink a ship or blow up a building. An apocalypse every 20 minutes is too much of a good thing. A bit of modesty would have been becoming.

Watching this, we know that it's the opening chapter in an intended series; it's got "franchise" stamped on every frame. If they refine it going forward, I'll gladly hop in the carriage and come along for the ride.



Opens Friday

3 stars

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Rated PG-13 for violence and action, some startling images and a suggestive scene