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Updated: December 14, 2009 17:18 IST

Downey turns super-sleuth in 'Sherlock Holmes'

AP
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Actor Robert Downey Jr., star of the new
AP Actor Robert Downey Jr., star of the new "Sherlock Holmes" film, strikes a pose during a ceremony to put his hands and feet in cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles on Dec. 7, 2009. File Photo: AP

Robert Downey Jr. is an actor at the top of his game — already a big-screen superhero, now an iconic super-sleuth.

He’s also surprisingly open about his self-doubt.

A charismatic performer with a sometimes troubled past, Downey struck box-office gold with 2008 hit “Iron Man,” and now plays the great Victorian detective in Guy Ritchie’s action-filled “Sherlock Holmes.” He knows he’s not many people’s mental image of the angular, cerebral and very British Holmes. He hasn’t let it stop him.

“You kind of act as if you’re up to the task until you find out whether you truly are or not,” said Downey, in a reflective mood during an interview in London.

“I was fortunate that right about this time last year I was really peaking in my own confidence and faith in my abilities. And seeing as I’d been cast and contracted and it was moving forward, it wasn’t like there was any benefit to me not thinking I was the perfect guy for it.”

Audiences will soon give their verdict on Downey’s muscular, street-wise take on the sleuth of Baker Street. The film has its world premiere in London on Monday and opens in the United States on Dec. 25.

Ritchie said Downey was “one of the few American actors” he could imagine as Holmes.

“His English accent is almost flawless. He just seems like the perfect guy.” And like Holmes, “his mind works at a speed I can’t keep up with.”

Downey’s detective is not the lanky, languid, deerstalker hat-sporting Holmes of previous screen interpretations. This, after all, is a movie by the director of Cockney gangster-geezer romps “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch” and “RocknRolla.”

When not battling baddies with stick fighting and martial arts, Holmes relaxes with a bit of bare-knuckle boxing. Trusty sidekick Dr. Watson, played by Jude Law, is a wounded Afghan war veteran with a gambling habit and an eye for the ladies.

Travesty? Actually, it’s surprisingly faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original descriptions of Holmes in stories that began appearing in 1887.

“Oftentimes the innovative thing to do is to be truer to the source material,” said Downey during an interview in the slightly spooky setting of London’s Freemasons’ Hall — a nod to the powerful secret society at the heart of the film’s criminal conspiracy. Room after room in the cavernous building holds heavy wooden chairs and mysterious objects, all watched over by oil paintings of past Masonic luminaries.

Downey said he was drawn to Ritchie’s take on Holmes as “the first modern martial artist.”

Conan Doyle fans, who might have feared blasphemy, will find many of the stories’ main ingredients present and correct. There’s a glimpse of Holmes’ criminal nemesis Professor Moriarty, a meaty role for Scotland Yard detective Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), and a romantic frisson in the form of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the only woman ever to get past the detective’s defences.

At the same time, Downey is the most physical Holmes on film. Ritchie offers up chases, fights and explosions aplenty as Holmes and Watson race to stop an occult conspiracy involving the murderous Lord Blackwood (a menacing Mark Strong) and a secret brotherhood that includes some of Britain’s most powerful people.

It’s an action romp with a big dose of bromance — Holmes and Watson spar and bicker like a married couple.

Downey can relate to Holmes. His own career has been marked by restlessness, from the Academy Award-nominated promise of films like “Chaplin” through well-documented drug troubles that saw him do stints of prison, rehab and probation.

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