In a series of 1940s Hollywood films, Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes as a suave, unflappable Victorian gentleman. His interpretation held sway until a British TV series in the 1980s, when Jeremy Brett re-interpreted the great detective as a snappish, antisocial loner. In the loud, busy, moderately diverting Sherlock Holmes movie out this week, Robert Downey Jr. re-invents him yet again, this time as a rumpled but swashbuckling action hero.

That’s neither sur-prising nor revolutionary. The really big change in Sherlock Holmes is its re-imagining of Dr. Watson. As played by Jude Law, Watson is smarter, fitter, and less tolerant of Holmes’ personality quirks than we usually see with this character. All that makes him more of an equal partner with Holmes in their adventures, and much of the fun in this movie comes from these two characters bickering like an old married couple.

sherlock-holmesThe characters are the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, but the plot here is entirely new. The great detective is challenged by Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a sinister occult worshipper who claims to possess supernatural powers and then scares large numbers of people into believing him by appearing to rise from the grave the day after he’s executed for murder. Of course, Holmes is too much of a rationalist to put much credence in this, but his judgment is clouded because the case throws him back into close quarters with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the American fortune hunter and con artist who obsesses Holmes because she’s the only criminal who has ever outsmarted him.

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Director Guy Ritchie is just now starting to find his way back after spending much of this decade buying into the late-1990s hype that he was the future of British cinema. This is the biggest project he’s ever had, and his inexperience shows in the patently fake-looking panoramic vistas of 19th-century London. He’s much more comfortable staging action set pieces like our three heroes being lured into a trap at a meatpacking plant. Conan Doyle probably would have appreciated that.

It’s strange, though, that Holmes lets himself get hit in the head so often in this movie. Given how much value the character places on his brain, you’d think he’d be more careful. Dedicated Sherlockians will also take issue with the shaky science that the writers employ. (Conan Doyle’s stories are full of continuity errors, but the author – a trained physician – was usually solid with his science.) Casual viewers will notice the ramshackle nature of the plot, with the movie frequently losing track of characters for too long.

What keeps you watching is the comic rapport between the two male leads, enabled by the better balance between Holmes and Watson. While the polished Law keeps his verbal attack quick and light, the scruffy Downey goes the opposite way, delivering his lines sonorously and off the beat and keeping his voice in the lowest part of his register. They make a terrific couple, and the human element they bring to this action thriller is good enough that you wouldn’t mind seeing them in Holmes and Watson’s further adventures.