It’s no secret that the West has borrowed a lot of inspiration from the East when it comes to filmmaking. The J-Horror wave of the early aughts was mined by studio producers until the scares became weak, the subtle terror of icons like Sadako and Toshio taking the backseat to copout jump-scares. Asian auteur directors like Ang Lee and Wong Kar Wai have both crossed over to American soil with big budget and arthouse successes here and there, their emotionally charged astuteness embraced by hardcore movie fans. But it’s the genre of Gun Fu, popularized by Hong Kong cinema through its purveyor John Woo, that has seen more than its fair share of Hollywood renditions. And with the critical and commercial success of John Wick: Chapter 2, it seems like we’ve hit peak Gun Fu madness. And take note, this isn’t a problem at all. In fact, it’s a glorious display of gunslinging choreography that might very well be a pinnacle in action moviemaking.
The style of Gun Fu originated in Woo’s heroic bloodshed movies, a genre of Hong Kong action flicks that saw one protagonist vengefully battling through a sea of foes to get to the big boss at the climax of the movie. Chow Yun-fat was the poster-boy for these high-octane cinematic gems, which incorporated intense and intricate gunplay choreography into the mix. Instead of the usual shoot ’em up sequences, action scenes played out like a ballet, and the director was the puppet master behind the chaotic dance that ensued onscreen. In A Better Tomorrow, Woo’s 1986 Yun-fat starring crime thriller, Gun Fu was brought to the forefront, reshaping the mold of Hong Kong cinema, which back then was mostly known for its martial arts and comedy outings.
It wasn’t till director Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado in 1995, where Antonio Banderas played a murderous mariachi on a mission, that Hollywood got its first real taste of Gun Fu, albeit in the deserts of Mexico rather than the bustling streets of Hong Kong. Perhaps the most popular take on Gun Fu to ever penetrate Western pop culture is the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, where Keanu Reeves and company become digital assassins in a cyberpunk war against human-enslaving machines. Gun Fu here was taken up a notch, fused with science fiction tropes to elevate the style into a territory yet to be seen in a mainstream movie. Other more recent films, like the adaptations of Mark Millar’s comic books Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service, have seamlessly combined Gun Fu into the reality of their narratives that audiences wouldn’t even think that this style of action was actually inspired by the Gun Fu films of yesteryear.
In John Wick: Chapter 2, Keanu Reeves reprises his role as the titular badass, ready to blow the brains out of anyone who gets in his way. The first installment was such a surprise hit because it took its leading man’s oft-mocked stone cold demeanor and used this to fuel a character study based on a hitman exacting revenge for the death of his poor pooch.
The sequel, however, amps up the already-overt violence and injects some dark humor as a reprieve from all the flying bullets, never taking itself too seriously in the process. It’s kind of funny how Reeves has found his place in pop culture as a vessel for unbridled action. His limited range as a thespian has actually helped him triumph in roles where he needs to be kinetic rather than empathic. Together with his director, former stuntman Chad Stahelski, muse and maestro have created an oeuvre worthy of being included in the Gun Fu almanac. Grim, gut-wrenching, and energetic at its core, John Wick: Chapter 2 has poised itself for that B-movie, cult status signifier that will act mostly as future fan service: the trilogy. It would be wise to prepare yourselves for John Wick: Chapter 3. If the Gun Fu action in the sequel is any indication of what to expect, the threequel is bound to be another hot mess of smoking barrels and open chest wounds.