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Sherlock Holmes is like Shakespeare, he’s always open to a fresh interpretation. In this case, Sherlock’s a brawling eccentric and this more adventurous incarnation stars in one of the year’s most genuinely fun movies.

The Game Is Afoot!

Sherlock inhabits a burgeoning, scrappy London
Sherlock inhabits a burgeoning, scrappy London

At the outset of this new spin, Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man) is dealing with the imminent marriage of his long-time associate, John Watson (Jude Law, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Of course, that also means Watson’s getting ready to move out and start a new life with his betrothed.

Naturally, that doesn’t sit well with Holmes, a man notoriously unlucky in love. But more about that in a moment.

The caper, an original one that is not based on any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales, involves a Masons-like cult and their nefarious plot for world domination, one that begins by taking over Parliament. Following a series of human sacrifices, Holmes attempts to put the clues together.

Concurrently, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, Mean Girls), seeks out Holmes’ assistance in tracking down a missing person.

Irene, as it turns out, was Holmes’ one big love. Gorgeous, yes. But she’s also a conniving, manipulative criminal of the streets, albeit high income streets.

Not So Elementary Characters

There’s a surprising amount of charm to be discovered in Sherlock Holmes. For starters, there’s a winning sense of humor. The humorous slant on one of the world’s most renowned sleuths having fallen in love with a con artist is one thing, and it’s played out so well by Downey and McAdams. But there’s more going on here that demonstrates the screenwriters Anthony Peckham ( Invictus) and freshman Michael Robert Johnson, hold a healthy amount of affection for the characters.

Many of the familiar Sherlock Holmes trappings are on display. Holmes still lives at 221B Baker Street. He still smokes a pipe (albeit a far less ostentatious model than he’s historically been seen with). His powers of deduction are phenomenal. And he’s every bit the tinkerer; he plucks away at stringed instruments, attempts to refine his idea of a silencer, and a dog serves as his insufferable guinea pig for all manner of experiments. Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, still gets a mention and, of course, Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan, V for Vendetta) is still willing to ride on Holmes’ coattails.

Mixing it up a smidge, Holmes doesn’t don that trademark hat and is far more eccentric; his room at 221B is a pig sty with all sorts of knickknacks and distractions lying around at every turn. He’s bored easily, which leads him to fill some of his spare time with bare-knuckle brawls; another favorite pastime is conniving ways to thwart Watson’s engagement (come on now, dear Watson, could you really live a “life without the thrill of the macabre”?). And those efforts come from the heart; in one key scene, Holmes masquerades as a doctor at Dr. Watson’s bedside. At one moment, his disguise his humorous, but the next moment it’s clear the sincere concern he holds for his dear, best friend cannot be concealed.

As for Watson, he’s not a buffoonish sidekick. He’s a military man with a wee bit of a gambling habit, most notably gambling on Holmes’ fights. In those fights, by the way, Holmes breaks down his moves, blow by blow, with a biological and psychological analysis of each hit’s impact on the opponent.

London Bridge Is Going Up

Some of the material here recalls another re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes, in which a university-age Holmes goes through many of the experiences that inform his adventures as documented by Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s the ill-fated romance, the eerie, Temple of Doom -like cult with Egyptian roots, and the villainous beginnings of Professor Moriarty.

Those same stomping grounds loosely inhabit this more sophisticated, complicated Holmes. And it’s refreshing to be able to describe Sherlock Holmes as sophisticated and, yes, complicated, particularly in terms of the lead characters. This isn’t a dippy, cheesy insult to its source material, a path that seems to undo most modern retellings, particularly those written by Akiva Goldsman and those starring Will Ferrell (who’s set to play a more comedic Sherlock Holmes in a totally unrelated, forthcoming production).

As directed by Guy Ritchie ( Snatch), Sherlock inhabits a burgeoning, scrappy London, one in which an under-construction Tower Bridge figures prominently on the landscape and in the climax. It’s a world in which the lead villain, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, The Young Victoria) comes back from the dead and toys with science to create terror.

It all builds up to a marvelous climax that clearly leaves the door open for a sequel, one involving Holmes’ most famous archenemy.