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Elementary: 'Sherlock Holmes' has a clue

Robert Downey Jr., left, and Jude Law in

Robert Downey Jr., left, and Jude Law in a scene from "Sherlock Holmes." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

An early example of a boffo franchise, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1939) kicked off 14 films based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictitious London sleuth, Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone, enigmatic), and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce, befuddled).

Over the decades this template has been rejiggered, if never quite redefined, as filmmakers turned Holmes into a recovering cocaine addict ("The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," 1976), recast Watson as a woman ("They Might Be Giants," 1971) and reduced both characters to children ("Young Sherlock Holmes," 1985).

Now stylishly violent director Guy Ritchie ("RocknRolla") is weighing in with "Sherlock Holmes," and its simple title - much like this year's "Star Trek" - signals not a reacquaintance but a reintroduction.

In this telling (by four screenwriters), Holmes retains his Google-like brain but now comes with muscle, charm and a faint whiff of ill repute, all in the person of Robert Downey Jr. (enjoyable, save for the strained accent). As for Watson, he's no longer a comic foil but a near-equal, nicely underplayed by Jude Law. They're a Victorian-era buddy team - if not Butch and Sundance, then at least "Lethal Weapon's" Riggs and Murtaugh.

Doyle devotees will recognize Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, half-convincing as the only woman to outfox Holmes), though they'll miss the dependably nefarious villain Professor Moriarty. He's been replaced by a new creation, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), whose powers verge on the demonic: After being hanged, he promptly rises from the dead.

As Holmes susses out the science behind the superstitions, the movie sometimes feels like an intricate episode of "Scooby-Doo." Indeed, it's almost kid-friendly, and that's a flaw: Ritchie, typically an R-rated director, is pulling his more brutal punches. There's no shortage of action and intrigue, but the mischievous glint in Downey's eye promises more than it delivers.

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