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 Bartitsu.org, 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 Française, 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 Française. 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.
Previous screen incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective have often downplayed Sherlock Holmes’ talents as an athlete and combatant. However, according to the canon, the Great Detective was a skilled boxer, fencer and singlestick player, whose “knowledge of baritsu” famously saved his life in mortal combat with Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. “Baritsu”, of course, is understood to have referred to the real martial art of Bartitsu.
“In the novels, the fights are often referred to off-stage; we will bring them on-stage,” explains co-screenwriter, Lionel Wigram.
Sixteen years ago I spent time in LA and whilst there swapped training with Eric Oram who I met through the Society of American Fight Directors. Eric practiced Wing Chun Kung Fu, which he studied with William Cheung, and I had the eclectic background that many fight directors have; I have studied a variety of eastern and western martial arts (in particular Aiki-jitsu and Classical Fencing) as well as stage combat.
Eric and I got on really well and had always spoken about working on a project together but despite a couple of near misses had yet to do so.
In the intervening years I’d established myself as a fight coordinator in the UK. Over time I managed to build a resume that included some big budget studio films.
Eric had continued to train and study Wing Chun becoming a Sifu (instructor) as well as one of that art’s pre-eminent practitioners. His Kwoon (school) was now well established and one of his students was Robert Downey Jr. Downey spoke to Eric about the possibility of using Wing Chun as the base of Sherlock’s fighting style. Eric didn’t know the film world in the UK and wasn’t sure he had the film experience for Holmes’ and the other fights. Also Warner Brothers would require someone with proven credits for such a gig, so Eric suggested bringing someone else on board and Downey, who I had met shortly after the release of Troy, said “well, what about your friend Richard?”
A couple of phone calls later I was on board … “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”.
T.W. – Were you a Sherlock Holmes fan before you started work on the movie?
R.R. – Yes, I was. I have read the complete works on a couple of occasions as well as individual stories. Of course I was familiar with the Rathbone and Brett interpretations as well as those paying homage, such as Gene Wilder’s in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother, which includes a brilliant fight by William Hobbs.
T.W. – That was a great scene; it was one of the few prior movies to show Holmes as a skilled fighter as well as a master detective. So, what was your process of researching Victorian fighting styles in preparation for the movie?
R.R. – I went to my library and took both Captain Alfred Hutton’s and Egerton Castle’s books off the shelf (1). I dug out videotape of French Cane, which was in my archive along with notes on fighting with an umbrella (I had been given an impromptu class years ago after fencing in a competition with the Metropolitan Police).
In addition, I was already familiar with your work in the area of Bartitsu and had a copy of the Bartitsu Compendium, which I re-read.
T.W. – That leads us to the next question; can you talk us through your original concepts for the fight scenes as they were described in the script?
R.R. – This film wasn’t one where all the fights were laid out in advance and remained fixed. Indeed, like something from Holmes’ casebook, there was a lot of investigation to find the martial methodology and style for Holmes, Watson and the other characters that fought. This was due to trying to get in step with the contemporary aesthetic of the film, Guy’s way of working, how Downey and Law saw their characters, the evolving nature of the relationship between Holmes and Watson, script revisions, etc, etc.
As the overall narrative of the film relies upon there being a close bond between Watson and Holmes, it seemed to me essential that, in addition to it being in the text, we realize that partnership in a physical, unspoken way that the audience would recognize.
I knew we wanted to use the fights involving Holmes & Watson to establish them as a team. It was important that they be pro-active in doing the right thing, taking the fighting to the bad guys but enjoying the physical (culture) and relishing the adrenaline rush.
The principal places for this were in the opening sequence in the Crypt, the fight at Reardon’s digs and the fight in the “Sewer”. In all of these we wanted to utilize them as a team either fighting side by side or combining to overcome the obstacles before them.
T.W. – What about that big showdown between Holmes and Blackwood at the end?
R.R. – The final fight, on Tower Bridge, remained fairly fixed in concept all the way through. Having seen Holmes best everyone he fought he now comes face to face with the main antagonist of the piece and they go at it. I had to show elements of Holmes reacting to the danger, working out what he would do to counter the threat whilst getting the device that all were after at that point in the narrative. All whilst on a partially built Tower Bridge that is 200 feet up. In actuality it was 30 feet, in front of a green screen.
T.W.– The fact that Doyle’s “baritsu” is not Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu must have offered considerable artistic license. Was there any particular relationship between the movie’s fictional baritsu and the historical Bartitsu?
R.R. – Bartitsu, as you are acutely aware, is a mixed martial art involving boxing, ju-jitsu, savate, stickfighting and swordplay that was popular at the turn of the 20th century. In developing our Holmes combat style we wanted to use a neo-Bartitsu that was in keeping with the film’s contemporary aesthetic. To do this we chose to utilize the Chinese boxing that Downey practices as the foundation and also incorporate swordplay and elements of Brazilian ju-jitsu, which Ritchie practices. (2)
In this film Holmes only meets Moriarty fleetingly so if we were to introduce a form of Bartitsu it needed to be without the aid of Moriarty and within the structure of this ‘introductory’ episode of Sherlock Holmes.
Bartitsu for him was a starting point, and like any good martial artist, he continued to explore crossover points and philosophies between various martial arts. Whilst there is nothing in the script to indicate it, we followed the premise that in addition to Bartitsu, Holmes had a book or manual of Chinese Boxing and that he chose to test that system in a very pragmatic and practical manner by participating in bare-knuckle fights.
T.W. – Shades of E.W. Barton-Wright encouraging his students to cross-train between all the different styles taught at the Bartitsu Club.
So I’m gathering that the movie “baritsu” was a combination of various influences, choreographed with a contemporary edge?
R.R. – The film is competing with modern action films, such as Bourne and Bond, for an audience and I knew that with the creative and fight teams we had, our movie Bartitsu would be a modern interpretation. However, I wanted to capture the flavour of Victorian Bartitsu so I focused on the fighting ranges. I believed that if we could use the cane, foot, fist and grappling ranges then we would be able to create something that worked for both the contemporary and Victorian aesthetics.
This premise enabled us to construct fights, particularly the “Punch Bowl” fight, that demonstrate Holmes utilising various martial aspects and how, when under pressure, he was able to focus his mind, body and spirit to overcome a problem.
During the “Punch Bowl” fight Holmes sees Irene Adler and tries to concede the fight in order to pursue her. McMurdo (his opponent) rejects Holmes’ offered handshake and spits at him. This moment gave us the trigger to show Holmes’ intellectual clarity of purpose reflected in a physical way that would establish a key character element how Holmes lives.
On occasion we hear Holmes’ inner thoughts as he determines how he will defeat his opponent, what the physical repercussions of each blow will be and how long they will be out of action as a result of them.
T.W. – It’s an interesting device, making the audience privy to Holmes’ battle plan as it’s formulated a split-second before he goes into action. We don’t often get that sort of clinical detail in a movie fight scene. It’s also illuminating as to Holmes’ character.
R.R. – In his defeat of McMurdo, at the “Punch Bowl”, we wanted to have Holmes do enough to win but also to harness his anger at McMurdo’s behavior and teach him an important lesson about life without crossing over into being vindictive.
The practicalities of this meant we needed to make this ‘pre-visualized’ part of the fight extremely visceral. The way in which Ritchie planned to film the scene (with a high speed Phantom camera) meant we would see each impact as the strikes landed, so we had to plan for robust physical contact.
We constructed a fight that had Holmes block the blows coming at him and deliver a number of precise, hard, blows that would have the viewer wince in recognized pain.
The challenge then was ensuring we had the right performer as McMurdo. A British stunt performer, Dave Garrick, was cast in the role and he did a terrific job, throwing punches at Downey only to have them blocked and a sharp crisp counter-strike hit him. It was a very tough physical day for both he and Downey as although not full out, the blocks and strikes were real.
T.W. – I hope viewers will spare a thought for Mr. Garrick, then!
R.R. – While this visceral, dynamic fight, which gives us our first proper look at this action aspect of Holmes, involved only two people in performance, it was the product of collaboration from a fight team that included myself, Eric Oram (fight consultant), Franklin Henson (stunt coordinator), Dave Garrick and the erudite input of Robert Downey Jr. and Guy Ritchie.
T.W. -That’s good to hear. People sometimes don’t appreciate the degree to which movie action scenes are collaborations between specialists.
How were the actors and stunt performers trained for their roles?
R.R. – We had “Fight Club”, where in addition to rehearsals for specific scenes there were Wing Chun sessions, swordplay and, on occasion, ju-jitsu with Guy.
Robert trains most days either in the gym and/or practicing Wing Chun. In addition he had fight rehearsals on a regular basis. Jude Law and Mark Strong also work out on a regular basis.
They had fight rehearsals with me and these were structured around what was coming up next, so they peaked in their fight training just as we were scheduled to film each scene.
T.W. – Finally, I have to ask – what was it like working on an action film in which both the director and lead actor are martial arts enthusiasts?
R.R. – A team full of martial artists and creative artists! It was a wonderful, brilliant and occasionally frustrating time. We all had something positive to contribute and all were able to demonstrate what we meant.
The obvious hazard with such a situation is that you have “too many chefs and not enough Indians”.
In this instance, though, I believe it worked as we were all working to the same end. As with any new work situation, there is a period of adjustment at the beginning as you figure out the particular work dynamic, but fairly quickly we got to a place where we could and would be able to amend and change choreography according to any changing circumstance or script change that came up at the 11th hour.
We played and explored from the first day of rehearsals to the last day of shooting. Always allowing for improvement or suggestion. One of my favourite memories is Downey saying after I demonstrated the final fight on Tower Bridge “It’s brilliant, perfect” … and then adding with a wry smile, “let’s change it!”
(1) – Captain Hutton was an instructor at E.W. Barton-Wright’s martial arts school in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, where he taught foil, epee and sabre fencing. Hutton’s students included actors and soldiers, who he trained in the skills of Elizabethan-era fencing. In 1901 he described the Bartitsu Club as being “the headquarters of ancient swordplay in England”.
(2) – Although the resemblance is probably co-incidental, many of the techniques of Wing Chun kung fu are notably similar to those of late 19th century “gentlemanly fisticuffs”. Both styles feature erect fighting stances, vertical fist punches and an emphasis upon protecting the central line of the body. The newaza (ground grappling) of Brazilian ju-jitsu closely resembles that of the eclectic “British ju-jitsu” that arose before the First World War.