First, let's address the proverbial white elephant in the room: Just because Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes never were seen boxing or performing martial arts doesn't mean the great detective didn't do it. Those skills are right there in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories and novels, so quit your whining.
As a fan of those timeless tales, I'm delighted to see this Holmes kick ass. And even if the fighting were just a figment of the filmmakers' imagination? BFD, my dear Watson.
Director Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" may dress up the classic character for the 21st century, but the setting remains 19th-century London, as it should. This is not an origin story, but one that finds the crime-solving relationship between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr., "The Soloist") and Dr. Watson (Jude Law, "Sleuth") threatened by the latter moving out, should he ever acquire the nerve to get engaged.
As the film opens, Holmes and Watson have swooped in to save a woman from being sacrificed in a black-magic ritual conducted by Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, "The Young Victoria"), an evil leader of a secret society. He has an eye for taking over the country, and a front tooth so crooked that you don't doubt it. For his past murders, Blackwood is hanged, but beforehand vows to Holmes that more deaths will occur anyway.
Enter Irene Adler (a miscast Rachel McAdams, "The Time Traveler's Wife"), a scheming, scrappy frenemy of Holmes who hires him to find a missing "ginger dwarf." He quickly does — albeit inside Blackwood's coffin. Suddenly, the game is afoot, as Holmes and Watson investigate and attempt to prevent further murders.
Tinged with the supernatural, the core mystery unfolds as several superb set pieces explode around it, including one harrowing close call that plays like a Victorian-era "Saw." Earlier, two fight sequences excite by having Holmes methodically plan his punches, which we see in slow-motion, before fisticuffs break out at full speed.
For all the action, however, "Sherlock Holmes" is surprising literate — even classy. Although a reel too long, the script relies more on dry wit than punch lines, while it finds a balance between the physical and the cerebral. Ritchie ("RocknRolla") emerges with his most focused film yet, if still rough around the edges, although he is aided and abetted tremendously by production design that captures London at its most grimy, ace cinematography by Philippe Rousselot ("The Great Debaters") and one of the more memorable scores of late from Hans Zimmer ("Angels & Demons").
With a calm reserve, Law impresses, restoring Watson as Holmes' equal, rather than sidekick. But the real glue, of course, is Downey, whose semi-steampunk Holmes is the most enjoyable kind of hero: the fallible one. Instantly genial, he's fun and funny without having to wink at the audience to earn goodwill. He's the well-trimmed bow atop this crowd-pleasing, Christmas present of a picture.
The difference here is, you'll enjoy it more if you turn your brain on. —Rod Lott