The substance of style: a review of the martial arts action in “Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows”

Due warning: this review contains minor plot spoilers.

A Game of Shadows is afoot all over Europe in the blockbuster sequel to Guy Ritchie’s 2009 hit movie, Sherlock Holmes. The plot is very loosely based on events described (and, significantly, implied) in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Final Problem, in which Sherlock Holmes famously confronts his arch-nemesis, the diabolical criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty.

Since many other critics have already offered thorough reviews of the film as a whole, and since this is, this commentary will focus specifically on the movie’s martial arts content; Holmes’ fictional “baritsu” fighting style being taken as an analogue of E.W. Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu. For full disclosure, the Bartitsu Society donated copies of both volumes of the Bartitsu Compendium to the production team for the 2009 movie.

Game of Shadows offers no less than five significant hand-to-hand fight sequences, three being especially elaborate. All are expertly choreographed by a team led by fight director Richard Ryan (see our exclusive interview with Richard here). Sherlock Holmes is portrayed as an excellent combatant with a tachypsychic ability to virtually meditate in the midst of chaos. Holmes is never made to seem invulnerable, however; he takes plenty of damage during the course of the story. The fight scenes are also exceptionally well shot and edited for maximum impact and enjoyment; it really helps when the director (Ritchie) is also a martial arts enthusiast (Brazilian jujitsu and judo), with an enthusiast’s eye for technical detail.

Robert Downey, Jr. (Sherlock Holmes) is himself a passionate student of the martial arts, specifically Wing Chun kung fu. Stylistically, there is comparatively little to call between Wing Chun and the transitional London Prize Ring/early Queensberry Rules method of English boxing, which was likely what Conan Doyle had in mind for Holmes and which was incorporated into Bartitsu by Barton-Wright. Both styles emphasise linear punching with vertical fists and protecting the central line of the body via skillful defence, including both percussive blocks and deflective parries. The two styles are so technically similar that it has even been speculated that Wing Chun may have been influenced by bare-knuckle boxing via European travellers visiting China – an intriguing, but unprovable theory.

Holmes’ “baritsu” pugilism strikes a nice balance between Asian and European fisticuffs; his defence is more mobile than is typical of pure Wing Chun, including numerous ducks, while his strikes are more diverse than was legal in British boxing, including nukite (spear-hand) and tegatana (knife-hand) blows as well as orthodox punches. His tactic of distracting opponents with thrown objects, established in the first movie and reminiscent of Barton-Wright’s overcoat trick, makes a welcome return.

There is also considerable stylistic cross-over between the low kicks of Asian martial arts and those of savate, or la boxe Fran├žaise, the French method of kickboxing. Although savate is never mentioned in the Holmes canon, it is absolutely plausible that that the polymathic detective should be familiar with this method of foot-fighting, which was widely popular in France during the late 19th century and had even been exhibited in London several times. It is worth noting that E.W. Barton-Wright carefully distinguished the style of kicking taught at his school from the orthodox techniques of la boxe Fran├žaise. This is assumed to have been a reaction against the stylised, academic/gymnastic style that was then popular in middle-class Parisian salles de savate.

In Game of Shadows, Sherlock Holmes makes frequent use of low kicks blended with fisticuffs, including swinging/chopping kicks (the coups de pied bas of savate) to the shin against two separate opponents and stamping front thrust kicks to the thighs of various other enemies. At least once, he also employs a skipping side kick (savate’s chasse median) to spectacular effect. Both pugilism (augmented by atemi-waza) and kicking are featured especially in the movie’s first fight sequence, in which Holmes is accosted by a group of four hired gangsters.

Perhaps the most overt stylistic nod to Bartitsu per se, however, takes place during the movie’s longest action set-piece, a furiously kinetic brawl (primarily) between Holmes and an acrobatic Cossack assassin, which rages throughout, out of and then back into an opulent and rather decadent gentlemen’s club. Even the athletic Holmes is just barely able to keep up with the Cossack’s parkourian agility, but the Great Detective’s triumph is assured by his inventive, high-impact close-combat via crook-handled umbrella, blended with wrenching jujitsu throws, locks and takedowns – the combined effect very strongly reminiscent of Barton-Wright’s classic essays on The New Art of Self Defence and Self Defence with a Walking Stick.

Each of the film’s fight sequences highlights Holmes’ idiosyncratic melding of techniques from different fighting styles and his astounding powers of combative improvisation, both, again, aspects of Barton-Wright’s ideal of Bartitsu as a method of cross-training. On the subject of improvisation, Barton-Wright noted:

It is quite unnecessary to try and get your opponent into any particular position, as this system embraces every possible eventuality and your defence and counter-attack must be based entirely upon the actions of your opponent.

Several critics have complained that Holmes’ unique perceptive ability, which approaches a kind of psychic precognition, is over-used in this film. Dubbed “Holmes-o-vision” by Guy Ritchie and memorably debuted in the 2009 original, this cinematic device is, in fact, used three times during fight sequences, but is twice cleverly subverted in surprising and gratifying ways.

Finally, the less said about Holmes’ inevitable confrontation with the suavely menacing Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) at Reichenbach Falls, the better; not because it’s anything less than superb, but because it would be churlish to even begin to give that game away. Suffice it to say that it’s not what you expect …

In all, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows simultaneously offers a terrific cinematic rendition of Holmes’ “baritsu” and, within the conventions of action choreography, a genuinely plausible representation of Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu.


12 thoughts on “The substance of style: a review of the martial arts action in “Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows””

  1. Excellent review! The fight scenes really made the movie, in my opinion. I loved the scene with the Cossack because I practice Russian martial arts, so it was a pleasure to see a bit of historic flair to the Cossack’s choreography. And as far as Holmes-o-Vision…. I love it! I think it perfectly depicts the combination of intellect and physical prowess that makes Holmes such an effective fighter.

  2. Saw the film last night and enjoyed it very much. The fights are indeed well done. Though I have to say there were a few places where the current fascination for overly shaky camera work in fights distracted me from the quality of the fights.
    I also found the Cossack gymnastics and acrobatics too often to be gratuitous adding little to the scenes and in no real way to aid the protagonist, other than they might look, “cool”. Basically they were too often tricks for the sake of being tricks, which is a shame as they could have easily been used to the Cossacks advantage and helped the narrative in a better way, as IMO the Parkour/Fight elements in the District 13 films.
    However I recommend the film and the fights it contains…

  3. Hi Jonathan,

    I don’t recall any shaky-cam to the point of distraction; if anything the cinematography and editing reminded me of some of the Lord of the Rings trilogy fights – very fast cuts telling a clear story – apart from those scenes (e.g. Watson’s brief fight in the darkened train carriage) when the action was (IMO) deliberately a bit confusing.

    I agree re. the one shot of the Cossack performing an extraneous Donald O’Connor vertical wall-run and backflip, though …

  4. Oh, I loved the Cossack’s acrobatics because they are so well-known for that (although generally these feats are performed on horseback). I understand what you mean; unlike the other fight scenes, which were clearly part of the plot, the Cossack acrobatics were a bit more Jackie-Chan style martial entertainment than Victorian street-fighting or any more realistic plot element. Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed that scene.

    I seem to recall that the trailer showed Holmes in a fencing mask and holding a rapier or foil, but I didn’t see that in the movie. I was really looking forward to a bit of backstory about how Holmes acquired his skill, similar to the punchbowl scene in the first movie. Maybe it was edited out of the final cut.

  5. Hi Rachel,

    I thoroughly enjoyed that sequence as well, but the one shot I was referring to was almost completely gratuitous; as I recall it, the Cossack runs full-tilt down a one-way corridor, up the wall, camera switches to an overhead shot of his aerial backflip, then he runs back down the corridor again. You can justify all manner of acrobatics in an action sequence as long as you demonstrate that they have a tactical purpose, but in that case, the edit simply read as if the Cossack was showing off – he didn’t appear to gain anything, either offensively or defensively, from flipping off the wall.

    The other shot you’re thinking of from the trailers turned out to be Holmes in his “urban camouflage” costume holding a long blowpipe, rather than Holmes in a fencing costume wielding a stick weapon.

  6. Just my PoV, whether fast cuts or moving camera, I like to see the action rather than the “pace” of the action. As say, it’s what I like and and what I don’t, especially when the action when it is clearly seen is so good. One can’t please all of the people all of the time! 8′)

  7. Hi Jonathan,

    this is why I enjoy the Holmes-o-vision device so much; it allows fight geeks to appreciate the technical details (in slow motion, with narration!) *and* a high-impact, visceral pay-off, in a style that’s congruent with the character. It’s the fight choreography equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too.

  8. Oh, that explains what I thought was a fencing mask! I do agree the Cossack’s backflip was gratuitous, yet I have to confess I enjoyed it anyway, in the same way I enjoy the comedic Jackie Chan films in which he inevitably fights off bad guys while holding a priceless Ming Dynasty vase. But you’re right, it was misplaced in Game Of Shadows.

    I would add further comments about the climactic scene with Moriarity, but your post introduction describes only “minor” plot spoilers and giving away the ending would be in bad form!

  9. Excellent review.
    Just a note to say that I thought that the Holmes-O-Vision was a fantastic device. It allows you to see what is going on in detail, then see it at speed. This reminded me of the way the technique the royal armouries interpreters use, breaking down and explaining a sequence of combat and then demonstrating it at speed. Importantly though it makes the point that Holmes success is due to mental preparedness and tactical awareness rather than any ‘superhuman’ strength or speed.

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