Sherlock Holmes: Intense Fighting Sequences

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"Sherlock Holmes," directed by Guy Ritchie, stars Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Rachel McAdams. The film is being released on Christmas Day by Warner Bros.

In the film, as in the books, both Holmes and Watson know their way around a fight and their skills are frequently tested. Holmes is a skilled martial artist; this propensity links him with both the star and director of "Sherlock Holmes," as Downey and Ritchie have practiced martial arts for years, and worked together to create Holmes's distinct fighting style. "Doyle called it Baritsu in the novels, which is tied to a 19th-century hybrid of jujitsu that is actually called Bartitsu, created by Edward William Barton-Wright," Downey explains. "Jujitsu is Guy's chosen martial art. Mine is Wing Chun Kung Fu. So, we developed our own combination of martial arts styles for the movie."

Holmes blows off steam

As efficient as he is at neutralizing an enemy in the course of his work, Holmes is also known to blow off steam in a boxing ring at a working class pub called the Punch Bowl. Here, in front a raucous crowd, Holmes takes on a massive boxer named McMurdo, played by David Garrick, in a brutal bare-knuckle fight which showcases the detective's prowess and physical strength.

"The bare-knuckle boxing ring is the only place where Holmes doesn't think," says Downey. "But even there he does think; he thinks about how to win the fight, but doesn't think about all of these ongoing concerns of life. Interpersonal relations don't enter into it. It's just you and your opponent."

"The Punch Bowl is where Holmes goes to hone his skill, to make mistakes, and test out techniques against very powerful opponents," comments fight consultant Eric Oram, who for years has trained with Downey in Wing Chun Kung Fu and helped prepare the actor for the fight sequences. "He starts by using the least amount of force in the first half of the fight. It's only after his opponent crosses the line that he wants to teach him a lesson."

Watson has his own style

More out of necessity than choice, Watson too knows his way around a street fight, though he is more of a brawler compared to the fluid combat style of Holmes. "Watson is used to the up-close-and-personal fight-for-your-life stuff," Downey attests. "He has a much more accessible but no less effective style than Holmes. As a matter of fact, there are often times when Holmes over thinks in order to come up with the best deduction, where Watson will just strike with any tool that's handy."

"Watson is a war veteran and used to thinking on his feet," says stunt coordinator Franklin Henson. "He can throw a wild punch in reaction, and, like a street fighter, he'll use whatever it takes–his head, knees or elbows–to bring an opponent down."

Law relished participating in the fight sequences. "When you're in the hands of someone like Guy, who shoots with such a unique eye, you know you're not shooting a standard fight scene," says the actor. "He's always looking for a new way to reveal the story behind the fight, and he knows exactly what he wants. So it's good fun."

Shooting the fights

Director of photography Philippe Rousselot utilized lighting and camera to make the textures palpable and the fights a truly physical experience. "Guy wants the film to feel to the viewer as if you're there," Rousselot states. "A good example is the Punch Bowl fight. It was crucial to bring in every detail, from a miniscule drop of sweat to the effect of each blow on the opponent's body to the sea of movement and tussling in the crowd."

Ritchie also used these sequences to deconstruct Holmes's thinking over the course of a fight. He and Rousselot accomplished this moment-by-moment technique using a high-speed digital camera called the Phantom, which creates an ultra-slow motion effect. "The Phantom takes one second of filming and strings it out over 40 or 50 seconds," says the director. "The camera takes in a great deal of information in a very short period of time, which is the perfect lens through which to illustrate how Holmes's mind operates. He is able to condense an enormous amount of information into a fraction of a second."

For a key action sequence–on a multi-story set representing the half-constructed Tower Bridge–Ritchie rehearsed extensively with the actors, along with Oram and Henson, as well as fight coordinator Richard R. Ryan. "We worked very closely with quite a big stunt team," notes co-producer Steve Clark-Hall. "They knew Robert's capabilities, which are considerable, and were able to play to his strengths. Pulling off this degree of high intensity action in these stunt sequences was quite a team effort."

Ritchie sought a strategic blend of rehearsal and spontaneity to ensure the chaos of fighting was reflected in the sequences. "I made the creative decision to make the film gritty, so I didn't want things to be too choreographed," he says. "We discussed everything, but we also made sure to leave room for improvisation. I didn't want it to look too perfect."

McAdams doing stunts

This sensibility appealed to Rachel McAdams, who had extensive stunt work in the Tower Bridge sequence. "Guy liked to keep things messy and keep the truth within this fantastical world," she notes. "There's always the temptation to get too refined when dealing with this period, but Guy made sure it was also rough and tumble and modernized. Doing this movie with Guy taught me to be really quick on my feet and precise, yet always open and flexible."

Of course, humor was an important ingredient in the action and found its way into all the action scenes. "There needed to be moments of levity and other moments of gravity," Ritchie offers. "So the funny bits got funnier and the darker bits got darker as we went along."