A brief history of bullet ballet in the West, and where it’s headed (Robin Hood and Highlander reboots, apparently).
Starved as we are for the John Wick: Chapter 2 premiere, you can bet our ears perked up when we heard John Wick folks fixing to do more John Wick-esque stuff ‐ especially “gun fu” related stuff.
In a recent interview for Collider, John Wick producer Basil Iwanyk explained that the forthcoming Robin Hood: Origins, a gritty reboot starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, and Ben Mendelsohn, will take inspiration from the stunt work of John Wick:
The images of Robin Hood, the imagery we have, the production design, the stunt work that we’re doing ‐ a lot of it was inspired by the John Wick stunt work. The stuff we’re doing with the bow and arrow, it’s the same thing that Keanu does with the gun.
Relatedly, here’s what John Wick helmer Chad Stahelski had to say in an interview for his upcoming Highlander remake:
We want to design it [with what] we think is aesthetically cool, and so far I’ve met no resistance, they’re like, ‘Look, whatever you did with John Wick with the gun stuff, we want you to try and do with the sword stuff.’
What “John Wick did with the gun stuff,” is a form of dance-like close-quarters gunplay that goes by the lovable portmanteau “gun fu,” a.k.a. bullet ballet, which incorporates acrobatics, hand-to-hand-to-gun combat, and frame rate manipulation. John Woo is credited for originating the style in A Better Tomorrow, launching the Heroic Bloodshed genre ‐ which he arguably perfected with this three-minute-long one-take from Hard Boiled.
Gun fu inevitably spread to the West, with Robert Rodriquez’ Desperado often cited as its dual-wielding ambassador. The Wachowskis would later popularize the style with The Matrix, bringing in Drunken Master fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping to coherently merge gun fu, kung fu, sci-fi, and sinful amounts of leather. Most immediately, The Matrix would inspire the critically-deplored and fan-beloved gun kata of Equilibrium and Ultraviolet, which gave way to a new generation of “back to basics” gun fu with Gareth Evans’ The Raid: Redemption ‐ along with more stylish titles like Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Wanted, and even the Candyland finale of Django Unchained. And of course, there’s the latest (and greatest?) entry in the western gun fu genealogy: John Wick, brought to us by Matrix stuntmen-turned-directors Stahelski and David Leitch.
Which leads us to Robin Hood: Origins and Highlander, which, while categorically not gun fu (see: lack of guns), share a family resemblance through Iwanyk and Stahelski…assuming they make good on their promised stunt work. If anything, with their elements of adventure-fantasy, a mythical past, and a potential weaponized martial-arts twist, these films might have something more in common with wuxia ‐ the genre, which literally translates to “martial-arts chivalry,” where kung fu (and by extension gun fu) has its origins.
While the John Wick series’ success (this is presumptuous, but I mean com’on) will surely inspire more *pure* western gun fu, it’s interesting that the series’ creators might potentially (if indirectly) be strangely looping back to the genre that inspired gun fu in the first place. I’m not trying to imply direct lineage, so much as note an interesting resonance these films might share with gun-fu’s origins ‐ assuming they follow through and do for the blade/arrow as they did for Wick’s gun. Speaking of which…
John Wick: Chapter 2 hits theatres February 10th, 2017.You see that pirouette? Bullet ballet indeed.