Downey steps into detective's well-worn shoes

Movie trailer:

Robert Downey Jr. is accustomed to stepping into outsized shoes, whether those of Charlie Chaplin or Iron Man.

A fearless actor with a perpetual twinkle in the eye, he is also more than a bit of a ham. Which may or may not serve him in good stead when he plays the great fictional sleuth in Friday's opening of "Sherlock Holmes."

Co-starring Jude Law as Dr. John Watson, with Rachel McAdams as Holmes' feminine nemesis, Irene Adler, the Christmas Day release doubtless will have its tongue-in-cheek moments, its "updates" and its variations of Holmesian lore.

It also has a mysterious new adversary, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who supplants the infamous Prof. James Moriarty (aka "Napoleon of Crime") while featuring the return of (bumbling?) Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan).

It could be a pivotal picture for director Guy Ritchie, a filmmaker seemingly cursed by his marriage to (ex-wife) Madonna. It's all been downhill since, and a long time since his one and only hit, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" (1999).

That the previews for "Sherlock" emphasize pyrotechnics and hand-to-hand combat - Holmes was NOT an action hero! - does not augur well.

Fortunately, Holmes is one of those iconic figures of whom the film industry never tires. And he can survive even the worst impersonations.

What Sean Connery was to James Bond - the one and only in the minds of many - so was Basil Rathbone to Sherlock Holmes.

But unlike Connery, Rathbone eventually had a rival for Holmesian admiration: Jeremy Brett, whose many cases dramatized on British TV (1984-94) were at least as much of a hit with U.S. viewers.

Serious Holmes aficionados also appreciated the fact that Brett's adventures were far more in keeping with the original 19th-century settings, sensibilities, characters and plots of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, and that the character of Watson was played by David Burke and, later, Edward Hardwicke as a sober, highly intelligent colleague, rather than a twit.

Forty-one of the 60 Holmes stories written by Doyle were adapted in the series, with uniformly happy results.

Apart from his first outing in the splendid "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1939) and, that same year, the equally good and period-correct (if hurried) "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (as Dr. Watson) launched into a series of 12 mediocre but still entertaining wartime films set in the 20th century. Purists were not pleased.

But the Holmes movie legacy goes back much further. His first adventures on screen appeared in 1903 as a two-reeler.

And Rathbone had many predecessors, among them Harry Benham, William Gillette, Eille Norwood, Carlyle Black, Clive Brook, Arthur Wontner (whom many buffs considered the best), John Barrymore and Raymond Massey.

After a long hiatus, Holmes surfaced again in 1959 and 1962, impersonated (respectively) by those old Hammer Films horror colleagues, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Charlton Heston later tried his hand, as did George C. Scott, Michael Caine and Nigel Williamson, the latter in the memorable Holmes-meets-Sigmund Freud romp "The Seven Percent Solution" (1976), with Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson.

The new film at least looks the part, period-wise. It remains to be seen if it invests any of its time to cool deduction instead of bombast and special effects.