5 key elements in Guy Ritchie’s epic forest escape scene from the blockbuster Robert Downey Jr. movie ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’
Image: Screengrab from Amazon Prime Video
I can’t believe I’m 10 years late for the party.
No wonder it’s taken me that long to find what arguably is the best chase sequence of all time.
If it wouldn’t have been for the challenge I set with author Sudha Nair to watch the two Sherlock Holmes movies by Guy Ritchie, I’d have never stumbled upon it.
I always thought the Gringotts escape in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 was the best.
But after being awed by Ritchie’s criminally underrated forest chase sequence in his second Sherlock Holmes movie, I’m compelled to change my stance. (Sorry, fellow Potterheads.)
Watch the sequence here below.
Both films arrived in the same year (2011), yet it’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows that emerges as the winner here.
It all boils down to one word: storytelling.
For the uninitiated, the scene shows Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr.) and his aide Dr. John Watson (Law) escaping from the factory owned by Holmes’ deadly nemesis, Prof. James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Accompanying Holmes are the gypsy fortune teller Simza (Noomi Rapace)—who’s looking for her missing brother—and her allies. Moriarty’s men, including his right hand Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson), go after the party through a dark forest to hunt them down.
Compared to the Harry Potter scene, which has more layers to its content, this one appears pretty simple at the outset. But in this particular case, writing marries presentation, technique, filmmaking, and even acting to tick all boxes of storytelling and produce a marvellous outcome (pun completely unintended here).
This is not to say that the final Harry Potter movie has bad acting performances. Far from it. Everyone has been impeccable in the film. But the actors in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows simply took the game to another level.
Coupled with the filmmaking and post-production devices, the team was able to turn a simple forest running sequence into something truly epic. I’ve been watching it on a loop and have lost count completely.
STORYTELLING = WRITING + PRESENTATION + PERFORMANCE + EDITING
Although I haven’t checked out Ritchie’s other works, I daresay it’s going to take him ages to outdo even himself on this one!
So, what are the ingredients of a great, memorable scene? Here are 5 that I’ve gleaned from this particular one.
Stakes and urgency
Usually, the goal of a scene is to establish Point A (where the characters currently are) and Point B (their destination), followed by the challenges in between that create the much-needed conflict.
The Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows scene, however, first establishes Point A (Holmes and party running in the forest), points out the challenges (the horses have been left behind, so the characters, including an injured Holmes, have to escape on foot while Moran and Moriarty’s German men chase after them with all sorts of lethal guns and weapons), and then shows Point B (the approaching train Holmes, etc., have to board).
Images: Screengrabs from Amazon Prime Video
I’m not sure whether sticking to the convention would have made any difference, but flicking the order somehow keeps things tenser and more organic. Throw in some high-voltage background music, and we end up with our hands on our mouths!
What’s the point of a scene if you can’t see anything in it clearly?
That’s exactly the challenge with sequences set in the dark.
But Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows ensures we’re able to see everything that transpires on the screen with utmost clarity, despite its twilit shades. No shaky camera movements, no jerks, nothing that disrupts the clarity of the scene’s contents at any point. It’s pure storytelling that’s the focus here—the best way to bring each line of the scene to life.
Be it “Little Hansel” or Moran’s breathing break, the scene packs in the most powerful ways to show how dangerous the antagonists and their weapons are. Nothing beats the German henchman covering his ears after the destructive projectile is loaded into the cannon, though. Combine these with techniques such as slow-motion and snorricam effects (esp. on Moran), and you have a winner here.
So, what happens when Little Hansel is fired at our protagonists?
Trust Ritchie to show the characters screaming and falling using the right choice of shots and some well-strategised slow-mo.
Usually, chase sequences have no place or room for showing any emotional reactions.
But Ritchie weaves in such a moment when one of Simza’s allies gets hit and she looks back sorrowed. It’s a split-second glimpse, yet it’s shot with all the clarity and technique on Earth.
Images: Screengrabs from Amazon Prime Video
This addition suddenly infuses the scene with a dash of humaneness; else, it would have ended up as a mechanical, testosterone-loaded chase sequence, with merely some effects to boast of.
I’m a stickler for emotions in stories. I’ve aimed to weave in plenty of them in my book PiKu & ViRu. (Buy/download, read, and review it here if you haven’t yet.) I understand that chase sequences are too focused on—well—the chase to concern themselves with anything else.
But this minor emotional bit, even if it’s for a few seconds, is a bonus for someone like me. I’m really thankful to Ritchie and his team for doing that. The Sherlock Holmes stories truly get the best possible adaptation through these movies. I’m a fan—can’t wait for Sherlock Holmes 3 now!
What’s your favourite chase sequence in films? What did it get right? Do share in the comments below.