From John Woo to John Wick, Here’s Your Guide to Gun Fu

Keanu Reeves in John Wick and Chow Yun-fat in Hard Boiled. Photo: Summit Entertainment

Back in 2014, Lionsgate had a minor box-office success with John Wick, a Keanu Reeves vehicle about a finely dressed assassin avenging the death of his beloved dog. (It was a really cute dog.) The film's off-kilter world-building, and immaculate fight scenes earned it a cult fandom, and eventually, a franchise: This week brought the first trailer for the John Wick sequel, as well as news of a potential third installment. But the film isn't just notable for kicking off what seems like a legitimate Keanu comeback — it's also a superb gateway drug to the wild world of gun fu.

Gun fu has its roots in kung fu, the martial-arts genre that came out of Hong Kong and, thanks to the virtuosity of performers like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, became a worldwide phenomenon in the 1970s. (Kung fu, meanwhile, has its roots in wuxia; recent examples of the latter include Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin. Everything comes from somewhere!) In these movies, martial-arts masters would fight off comically large hordes of adversaries, or other martial-arts masters, in choreographed set-pieces halfway between brawling and ballet.

In the 1980s, director John Woo took this style of action and cleverly added guns, combining the elegance and precision of kung fu with the brutality and violence of gangster movies. This genre, also referred to as Heroic Bloodshed, reached its zenith with the three-minute-long one-take shot in Woo's Hard Boiled, among the greatest action sequences ever filmed. Woo's innovation was to treat cinematic gunplay as an aesthetic, not just frenetic, experience. He shot his action scenes with deliberate precision and panache, upping the ante in every respect: Woo gave Chow Yun-fat two guns instead of one, made extensive use of slow motion, and had his heroes and villains expend as many bullets as possible. If Sam Peckinpah invented the modern gunfight (and the editing techniques that help render it) in The Wild Bunch, Woo found the iconography within these scenes and heightened it to a point where the weaponized combat became an art in and of itself.

If Woo turned Peckinpah into modern dance, then the Wachowskis made Woo pop art. The genius of The Matrix comes from the fact that it combines so many different influences into a coherent new thing. It's a movie that is at once gun fu and kung fu, filtered through sci-fi and comic-book lenses as well as the best special effects available at the time — and the most possible amount of leather. The Wachowskis' decision to employ Yuen Woo-ping as fight choreographer played a crucial role in making this work. Yuen, the maestro behind kung-fu classics like Jackie Chan's Drunken Master, brought his knack for orchestrating impossibly crowded battles to the Wachowskis' ambitious set-pieces. (Unsurprisingly, John Wick's directors, longtime stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, also worked on The Matrix series.) Yuen's influence on Hollywood would eventually extend well beyond Neo; he'd later work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino's direct homage to kung fu. 

As nature demands, the success of The Matrix made its own ripples in the gun fu tradition, of which the height — or nadir, depending on your appetite for extreme stylistic indulgence, and, uh, guns — is probably "gun kata," the fighting style introduced in Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium, a movie in which Christian Bale's character kills 118 people. Gun kata takes the implied martial artistry of Woo's armed warriors and makes it literal, suggesting an actual science and technique to gunfighting that involves the body and movement, beyond simply pointing and shooting a gun at someone else. Creative as this approach may have been, Wimmer's gun kata movies were brutalized by critics, and it's more of an offshoot of the gun-fu genre than a real evolution.

But as cyberpunk fell out of favor, the next generation of gun fu looked beyond The Matrix, going back to the origins of the form. In 2011, Welsh director Gareth Evans released The Raid: Redemption, which starred Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais as a policeman battling an entire apartment tower. The Raid took from Woo the idea of one man fighting through one location and an insane number of enemies, but stripped away everything else that might distract from it, creating one of the most concentrated doses of action ever put on film. It was a critical hit and an international cult favorite; it made a star out of Uwais and spawned a sequel, The Raid 2, in 2014.

The Raid and Wick franchises — along with a few other titles, like Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass and Kingsman, Timur Bekmambetov's Wanted,  Ilya Naishuller's Hardcore Henry, and even Tarantino's Django Unchained — represent the latest wave of gun fu. These new films' protagonists aren't just martial artists — they're now secret agents, superheroes, runaway slaves, assassins, and, really, anyone who can hold a gun.

At the same time, because these movies are so stylized and unrealistic — and despite their sky-high body counts and general lionization of firearms — they seem to have mostly avoided the increased politicization of guns in real life. The ripped-from-the-headlines vibe of a movie like Jason Bourne makes the central role of a handgun in its marketing ripe for suggestions that it exploits recent real-life violence, because Jason Bourne is supposed to take place in the real world. But gun-fu movies tend to be closer to video games or other fantastical entertainments; the gunplay might be made to look cool, but it's also obviously fake. Rightly or wrongly, that seems to exempt it from the same accusations of insensitivity, particularly when the stylized violence of video games like the Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty franchises is so much more immersive and intense. 

John Wick: Chapter 2 isn't likely to change the debate over gun violence onscreen, nor will it seek to do so. The bigger question is whether it can remain as fresh and surprising as the first one now that we've seen what it has up its sleeve. (Hint: it's a gun.)