The Tactical Works of Sherlock Holmes

If you came here just looking for a review of the latest Sherlock Holmes film, I’ll make it quick … it was great. I highly recommend it. Even if you’re a fan of the books I think you’ll be pleased.

But this post isn’t a general movie review. As a video producer and martial artist I found the movie utterly fascinating.

It’s hard to make a good fight scene in a movie. It’s even harder to make a realistic fight scene in a movie. Harder still it to make a realistic fight scene that retains the character’s essence, so it’s obvious the character in the fight as much as it is in the rest of the story.

Sherlock Holmes completely succeeds in all of these areas. There was a big concern the “world’s greatest detective” would be lost in explosions and fisticuffs. Guy Ritchie does a fabulous job putting Sherlock Holmes’ analytical mind into the fight sequences.

The technique Ritchie uses to bridge Holmes’ mind and body is commonly known as “pre-visualization.”  Holmes sizes up an opponent, plays out the most likely fight scenario in his head and then executes the sequence to perfection … much to the painful dismay of his opponent.

Pre-visualizing the fight helps in three major areas …

  1. Showing Holmes’ analytical mind … Robert Downey Jr. is obviously a brawler, so he’s a natural choice for his physical presence. Holmes scripting the fight based on his extensive knowledge of Bartitsu and biomechanics ties the mind to the fist. The writers get major kudos for the film noir narration that Holmes uses to setup his opponents’ impending doom.
  2. Showing the fight at a speed that is easy to watch … real fights are hard to film and difficult to watch. Movie fights tend to put more space between opponents than required and run at slower speed than makes sense. Pre-visualization can run at any speed, so the audience has time to enjoy all the bone-crunching action.
  3. Setting up the fight when it plays in real time … once you know how M.C. Sherlock thinks the beat down will go down, the fight can happen in something closer to real time. The fight can be a little more realistic, from the standpoint of timing and visceral feel. It also helps bring credibility to Holmes’ analytical process when the fight happens just as he said it would.

Without this technique, Sherlock Holmes as an idiot savant Jeet Kune Do master doesn’t work. The combination of Guy Ritchie’s direction, sharp writing and Robert Downey Jr.’s ability to bring his own martial arts experience into the film totally sell the world’s greatest detective as an action hero.

Action film directors … watch and learn.

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