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`Young Sherlock Holmes' is a portrait of the detective as a sleuthing schoolboy

Movies are so obsessed with teen-agers lately that if I were Sherlock Holmes, sleuth extraordinaire, I wouldn't even dream of a comeback. Strange are the ways of Steven Spielberg and his cronies, though. Holmes has returned against the odds -- and credit goes not to aging Hollywood nostalgia buffs but to the writer of ``Gremlins,'' the director of ``Diner,'' and the executive producer of ``Back to the Future.''

It stands to reason that if these gifted whippersnappers took an interest in Holmes at all, they'd come up with a youth-market version geared to current trends. Sure enough, ``Young Sherlock Holmes'' is a portrait of the detective as a schoolboy. He's brimming with ideas and energy but still youthful enough to be chastised by a teacher, distracted by a girlfriend, and patronized by a supercilious clod like the local policeman, whose name happens to be Lestrade.

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Just as predictably, the filmmakers have decked their show with all the trappings of the '80s, from flashy visual effects to doses of PG-13 violence. There's no mistaking ``Young Sherlock Holmes'' for any of its ancestors, which stayed wordy and tame even when they carried bloodthirsty titles like ``Dressed to Kill'' or ``Sherlock Holmes and the Terror by Night.''

Yet the new picture does lean a little toward the past, tempering Spielbergiana with some refreshingly old-fashioned qualities. Its atmosphere is warmer and its pace is a bit more relaxed than anything you'll find in, say, an Indiana Jones epic. The heroes bear some resemblance to a rejuvenated Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who played Holmes and Watson in bygone years. Even the supporting characters have a familiar ring, going through their timeless paces under Dickensian names like Mrs. Dribb and Mas ter Snelgrove.

The story itself hovers between the old and new, never quite settling into either mode. It's about a string of unexplained deaths that lead Holmes on a trail through his own school, into the foggy London streets, and eventually to a sinister cult that kills people by blowgunning them with a hallucinogen.

Readers of authentic Holmes tales won't be surprised at the movie's sinister and exotic elements, but the climaxes seem calculated less as a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than an excuse to blast us with the high-tech nightmares that pass for fantasy in today's fright films. The sudden switches from talky drama to aggressive camera tricks are jarring. It doesn't help that some moments are derivative as well as horrific, including an introductory blitz that's a veiled steal from ``Eraserhead.''

Among the cast, Nicholas Rowe and Alan Cox are just right as the sleuth and his sidekick, and most of the other performers follow suit.

Barry Levinson directed from a screenplay by Chris Columbus, who seems to be growing up after his fling with ``Gremlins'' and ``The Goonies,'' and Stephen Goldblatt did the stylish cinematography. The special effects were executed by Industrial Light & Magic, one of George Lucas's outfits.

And by the way, if you see ``Young Sherlock Holmes,'' stick around until the credits are over. In their most original gambit, the filmmakers save their last secret for the last moment of the picture.

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