From Hong Kong to America, John Woo to Chad Stahelski, Chow Yun-fat to Keanu Reeves. With its heroic bloodshed, gun-fu has painted towns red worldwide for over three decades. Back in the early 80s, John Woo was immersed in the world of wuxia and comedies that dominated the Hong Kong film scene; however, his whole career was about to take a turn for the best when he was enlisted to direct a remake of Patrick Lung Kong’s 1967 film “The Story of a Discharged Prisoner”, which was retitled “A Better Tomorrow”.
Despite a shoestring budget and barely any advertising, “A Better Tomorrow” became a box office hit. It created a blueprint, inspiring action filmmakers and stunt coordinators everywhere. It catapulted Woo’s career into transcendental legacy, as he followed on with his latter masterpieces “The Killer” and “Hard- Boiled”.
Many international copycats tried to recreate it and were, eventually, successful. The birth of gun-fu in 1986 raised the stakes for stunt choreography, evolving from brutal, but quite underwhelming, techniques, to beautiful and bloody ballet performances.
As the name implies, gun-fu blends high-octane hand-to-hand combat with firearms galore. This little sub-genre has become popular among audiences due to its visual spectacle despite its usually unrealistic setups. After its media explosion, it inevitably moved to the West, starting with The Matrix by Lana and Lily Wachowski, which is no coincidence where Reeves and Stahelski first worked together. The Wachowskis incorporated various elements of Eastern action techniques, including gun-fu, into their seminal sci-fi classic.
While The Matrix has a minimal showcase of gun-fu, it started the movement of firearm use in up-close combat. Three years later, Kurt Wimmer launched his cult classic Equilibrium into theaters, where an enforcement officer played by Christian Bale practices gun-kata, an in-world version of gun-fu which is more choreographed and does not bother with momentum during the shooting sequences hence developing a more smooth and delicate style.
A more under-appreciated and, frankly, better example of Western gun-fu would come a year later with Len Wiseman’s Underworld. Underworld was critically panned and described as a Matrix knock-off, and they might be correct. Still, Underworld demonstrated gun-fu’s new phase, blending the stoic and industrial visuals of The Matrix with John Woo’s framing and choreography.
Throughout the next ten years, gun-fu was a subject of experimentation, resulting in some exciting displays (Collateral) to some misfires (Wanted). In 2012, Derek Kolstad wrote a spec script called Scorn in just over four days, inspired by two awful revenge films he had just seen.
Scorn tells the story of a retired gun-for-hire who falls back into a life he left behind, a relatively simple plot that we have seen many times in the past; however, elevated by its Western and noir influences with a central figure inspired by Clint Eastwood, Scorn ignited a hot bidding war. Scorn later landed at Thunder Road Films, looking for an action vehicle for Keanu Reeves. Reeves sent the script to Chad Stahelski and David Leitch; the rest is history.
Stahelski and Leitch have been very vocal about their fanaticism of Hong Kong cinema, so John Woo’s influence in the franchise is no accident. They also realized that due to time and budget constraints, the best option was to use long choreographed sequences, which would also help the audience’s immersion in the film. John Wick received a surprisingly positive reception from critics, as the marketing made it seem derivative and empty.
Years later, John Wick is now a full- blown tentpole franchise with four films and two spin-offs on the way. The real question is, what is it about this franchise that is so popular with all audiences? The answer lies in its influences on gun-fu or, as Stahelski describes it, a blend of Japanese jiu-jitsu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, tactical 3- gun, and standing Judo, all wonderfully constructed by Jonathan Eusebio. We end up with gun-fu’s most ambitious evolution, primarily traditional, but highly stylized and experimental.
Heroic bloodshed films usually find a law enforcer or a criminal with a strict set of rules that generally guides their goals and overall arc. It is filled with emotional angles that fuel the hero’s journey. All of this is reflected in John Wick’s first entry. With a $20 million budget, the first John Wick uses gun-fu in key scenes only, establishing a legacy of bright technicolor mixed with ultra-heightened choreography and strict frame composition. The sequence at the Red Circle nightclub enforces its violent visuals in the most potent way possible, throwing the viewers into a level of immersion that was rarely used in this kind of film then. The firearms become an extension of the character’s dance, weaved seamlessly by gorgeous one-take shots that take your breath away.
While gun-fu transformed itself throughout the decades, John Wick kept its focus on the basics of the sub-genre. The same basics make its engagement fully realized with audiences. The most recurring trope is the one-man army at the center of the arc. It implies a lone wolf combatant ready to take on countless enemies, making us dream of being that warrior out for blood in exchange for a better world.
We might have outright protection for an innocent. John Woo used a baby in Hard Boiled; however, John Wick turned it around by making him unable to protect his dog. Another reason for the gun-fu rebirth is the rise of the action genre, which gives us a chance to enjoy these incredible adventures from the comfort of our theater seats or couch. This franchise’s dynamic display reinforces emotions through added movement, speed, and a shot of adrenaline.
We can also add its beautiful aesthetics. The human race has proven to be a violent species, but this does not mean everyone enjoys the sight of blood, guts, and emotional and physical devastation. Gun-fu removes the brutality associated with guns and becomes a refined weapon used to gather justice in the name of the voiceless. It gives blood an artistic endeavor similar to painting a portrait of instinctive human delights. Gun-fu has given not only its respect back to the action genre but through our beloved vessel John Wick, it also has garnered some distinguished reception.
Keanu Reeves and Chad Stahelski have led this renaissance from the beginning, from their Matrix origins to their metal gun-fu sequences in one of the most impressive showcases of stunt coordination ever put on the silver screen. They have moved past using gun-fu to cut time, but it is now the centerpiece of the work they will be remembered for. Moving on from chapter to chapter, what is clearly a strict group of movements changes into a devastating fight for survival. What Stahelski has achieved with these films is nothing short of extraordinary as audiences holler at the sight of the epitome of the one-man army. The John Wick storyline transcends from a traumatic character study about loss and revenge; those are faded memories with little relevance. It is a story about inner peace; if you want peace, you must prepare for war.
This article is written by Alfie Amaya and part of The Action Elite’s ACTION ANTHOLOGY series; celebrating the cultural impact of the action genre in cinema & TV, and promoting THE LONDON ACTION FESTIVAL taking place in London from Wednesday 21st – Sunday 25th June. Sign up to the newsletter to receive all news, updates, and Early Bird ticket release.