SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS: Elementary Wing Chun, Elementary
by Gene Ching
Robert Downey Jr. has become the most prominent wing chun advocate in the world. Kung fu film fans might cite Donnie Yen higher, but that would be folly. While Yen is surely at the top of his game with his tent-pole franchise based on the great wing chun grandmaster Ip Man, he hardly holds a candle to Downey's global impact. Let's compare. Round 1: The first IP MAN was a major Asian blockbuster released in 2008 that grossed over $21 million worldwide. SHERLOCK HOLMES was released in 2009, grossed over half a billion worldwide, and earned two Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe for Downey. Who wouldn't make a sequel to either cash cow? Round 2: IP MAN 2 went mano-a-mano with Downey's other powerhouse franchise, the international release of IRON MAN 2. While IP MAN 2 beat out IRON MAN 2 in Hong Kong and broke box office records across Asia, its worldwide gross was just under $15 million. IRON MAN 2 was over $600 million. Round 3: Donnie Yen is one of Asia's highest-paid actors. Robert Downey is one of the highest-paid actors in the world, currently ranked 73 in Forbes Celebrity 100 (which doesn't include a single Asian celebrity). He drew a $15 million paycheck just for this Sherlock sequel alone.
While the international film market is paying close attention to the rise of Chollywood (Chinese cinema), China still has millions to go before it catches up with Hollywood's global box office sales. Clearly Downey doesn't have the career-long martial credentials like Donnie, but his spotlight is so much brighter that when he endorses wing chun kung fu, millions more listen. The world knows Downey. At this point, readers of this article who don't follow Asian cinema are still wondering, "Donnie who?"
For the last few years, Downey has been a stalwart supporter of wing chun. When he was on the May 2010 cover of Men's Journal, he posed in a wing chun guard position and spoke reverently about his practice. The Brat-packer-turned-drug-addict credits wing chun as a major aspect in his therapy. Downey extolled the value of wing chun again in his cover story for the Autumn/Winter 2011-2012 issue of UK's GQ Style. Maybe he could give Charlie Sheen a lesson. Wasn't he a brat-packer too? Or was that Charlie's brother, Emilio? Whatever. For the first SHERLOCK installment, Downey's wing chun practice was at the forefront of the film's marketing buzz. In SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS, wing chun hasn't been emphasized as much as it was with the original. Ironically, the fights in the sequel have a more pronounced wing chun influence, which few would notice but readers of KFM.
A GAME OF SHADOWS reunites Downey with director Guy Ritchie and co-star Jude Law as Dr. Watson. Like Downey, Ritchie is also a martial arts practitioner. He studied Shotokan karate as a child, and holds a black belt in judo and a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. A three-man team oversaw fight choreography: Richard Ryan as coordinator and Hira Koda and Eric Oram as consultants. Oram is Downey's wing chun sifu, himself a student of renowned Grandmaster William Cheung. Based in West L.A., Oram was also a consultant for the first Sherlock film.
Filling out the cast is Noomi Rapace, a gutsy actress who burst into international stardom with her visceral portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish production of the Millennium series (based on the global best-selling trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson). Kung Fu Tai Chi has a special connection to that franchise. In the second film, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, it was revealed that Salander is a subscriber to Kung Fu Tai Chi. Ironically, a Hollywood version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is set to open a few days after GAME OF SHADOWS premieres. This new version is directed by David Fincher and stars Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig. Many fans of the series are skeptical as Rapace's performance was so immersive. She owned the role of Salander.
In GAME OF SHADOWS, Rapace plays a gypsy named Madam Simza Heron. An A-list of international leading ladies was considered for this role, including Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Sophie Marceau and Audrey Tautou. For Americans not familiar with the original Millennium series, this marks Rapace's Hollywood debut. Next she will be stepping into another highly-anticipated role as a lead in PROMETHEUS. This is Ridley Scott's return to the ALIEN universe. Like ALIEN's original heroine, Sigourney Weaver, Rapace naturally exudes a feminine toughness, a rare combination of beauty and brawn, which makes her a perfect representative of female empowerment. However, while Rapace's work in GAME OF SHADOWS is quite captivating, she doesn't quite turn the Holmes/Watson bromance into a satisfactory ménage a trois.
Much of the first film banked on the homoerotic chemistry between Downey and Law. Indeed, the franchise centers on their relationship, dressed up by Ritchie's sumptuous cinematography. In both installments, the snarky banter between the two actors is absolutely hilarious. Downey and Law have perfect comic timing for their exchanges, and this keeps both films rolling forward. This is exploited to the extreme in the sequel. In many ways, Conan Doyle's original work served as the original recipe for a classic buddy flick: two mismatched friends who constantly irritate each other with their quirkiness on an adventure. Several Sherlock Holmes films depict Watson as a bumbling foil to Holmes' genius; however, he wasn't necessarily so in the books. Indeed, Watson was Holmes' chronicler, which serves as one of the nods GAME OF SHADOWS gives to the source literature. Law brings a lot more to Watson, putting him almost at the same level as Holmes to add fuel to their repartee.
Another nod is the addition of Holmes' arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty, sinisterly played by Jared Harris. The "game" of GAME OF SHADOWS is a chess motif, which plays out in black-and-white chessboard dance floors, as well as an actual game between the two rivals. But the moves of the two masterminds go by too quickly. Ritchie never gives the audience a chance to second guess. At the heart of every good who-done-it is the opportunity for the audience to predict the plot. In GAME OF SHADOWS, we never get to see the whole chessboard, just speed-chess rapid-fire moves. This undermines much of the charm of a good mystery thriller. Such is the game of Sherlock Holmes. All the evidence is there. The audience must deduce the red herrings and solve the mystery.
Loyalty to the source material was another marketing ploy of the first film. Downey's Holmes dispensed with his signature deerstalker cap, which wasn't actually in the books. It was an artifact of Basil Rathbone's classic depiction of the sleuth from the early 40s. With the first film, some effort was made for period authenticity. In GAME OF SHADOWS, Ritchie's vision of 19th Century England borders on steam punk. It is reminiscent of the old west depicted in Robert Conrad's late 60s TV show, THE WILD WILD WEST. Holmes and Watson have access to means and devices that really only exist in the modern era, like chest compressions for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Both have romantic visions of their respective periods with a James Bond sensibility towards action (lots of explosions), plot devices (criminal masterminds deploying mass conspiracies to upset the global balance of power so they can profit through their business interests) and the occasional deus ex machina contraption. Like Downey, Robert Conrad was also a martial artist. He was a student of kajukenbo and Shotokan karate. That martial background gives their fight scenes more credibility. While they aren't delivering the level of sophisticated choreography like Bruce, Jackie, Jet or Donnie, they still turn in a decent fight scene. In today's cinematic world of dazzling special effects, it's refreshing to see some fights delivered by the actors themselves in earnest. And anyone who knows anything about wing chun can see Downey's nods to his style, just as fans of the original book series will acknowledge nods by the GAME OF SHADOWS story line. In the books, Holmes was a fencer, a bare-knuckle fighter, an expert at single stick and had some knowledge of bartitsu. Bartitsu, an obscure English martial art, enjoyed some media exposure after the first film. It is still practiced, particularly among the steam punk circles. However, if Downey's fighting method as Holmes is to be characterized into any style, forget authenticity to Doyle. For Sherlock, Downey is throwing wing chun moves, plain and simple.
Nevertheless, what GAME OF SHADOWS may lack in substance it makes up for in style. In the first film, Ritchie created Holmes-o-vision, a cinematographic device which peered into Holmes' thought process through flashes of predictive visions. Holmes-o-vision takes the audience through action sequences, particularly the fights, at a staccato pace of fast forwards and freeze frames, with Downey's narration on probable outcomes. In the first film, Holmes-o-vision incorporated elements of Holmes' power of observation as he quickly ascertains his opponent's strong and weak points, as well as his deductive skills as he instantly arrives at the most effective strategy. Holmes-o-vision works a little differently in GAME OF SHADOWS. Several of his strategies are interrupted by new variables, twists usually inserted by Simza and Moriarty. The final fight plays out well in Holmes-o-vision, and any true Holmes fan gets the chance for the precious second guess, as the outcome is as obvious as Reichenbach Falls.
Sherlock Holmes is enjoying revitalization for the 21st century generation. Besides GAME OF SHADOWS, PBS broadcast about a month ago the highly-acclaimed short series, SHERLOCK, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson. SHERLOCK has become a flagship series for PBS, and the eagerly anticipated SHERLOCK Series 2 is already scheduled for broadcast in May 2012. Will Downey, Ritchie and Law reteam for SHERLOCK HOLMES Part 3? GAME OF SHADOWS ends with that very question mark.
|Discuss this article online|
|Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows|