The John Wick franchise took plot, crumbled it up like a sheet of loose leaf, and tossed it out the window, opting instead for straight action. This plan could easily have failed. Poor fight scenes would have left us with four hours of Gymkata. Luckily, as you’re probably aware, John Wick did not fail in this department. The fight scenes were some of the coolest ever on the big screen. And that’s all thanks to a martial art you’ve probably never heard of.
The secret to John Wick‘s success is something called “Gun Fu.” And before you run off to your local academy to see if they offer it so that you too can get revenge on the person who harmed your pet, let’s delve into what this mysterious art is.
John Woo originated the style in the late ’80s, with films like A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. He blended fast-paced martial arts with firearms to create one cohesive fighting system. Gun fu eventually made its way to U.S. shores, as films like Bulletproof Monk and Kick-Ass used it in a variety of scenes. Still, it’s John Wick that showcases the art in its most fascinating form. There are no Matrix-style effects. There are no moves that require super powers. Gun fu in John Wick, as described by director Chad Stahelski, is a combination of “Japanese jiu-jitsu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, tactical 3-gun, and standing Judo.” Under the watchful eye of Jonathan Eusebio, the fight coordinator for both John Wick films, Keanu Reeves took those arts (and others) and threw them into a blender. What emerged was partially traditional and partially experimental, a style rooted in reality yet punched up for the big screen.
Here’s a deep dive into the gun fu of John Wick.
Firearms are really what make gun fu unique. Whereas most movies view gun fights and hand-to-hand combat as two separate things (minus a disarm here and there), John Wick incorporates pistols into the actual martial art. There are traditional moves that happen to be punctuated with a bullet.
This can be seen on numerous occasions throughout both films. The beginning of the museum fight in John Wick: Chapter 2 showcases it perfectly (skip ahead to 0:56). John Wick traps one of his adversaries’ arms. He holds them in that position without finishing an armbar or joint lock so he can pick off a couple other bad dudes with his gun while the first attacker is helpless. Then, as is often the case, instead snapping the guy’s limb, he fires a round into his head. This is gun fu in a nutshell.
There’s an emphasis on both rapid fire and quick draw techniques throughout both films, and that seems to be the backbone of this made-up art, to use a weapon in a fast, efficient manner. Rarely do you see the people John Wick fights take more than a single bullet. Reeves trained hard to do this as realistically as possible.
Of course, with more bad guys than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, some of the attackers make it past the barrage of bullets and get up close and personal with John Wick. This is when the real beauty of gun fu begins.
Jeet Kune Do and Kali
Jeet Kune Do and Kali are not mentioned by Stahelski when describing Gun-Fu, but both are present in the two John Wick films. That makes a load of sense, as Eusebio trained under Dan Inosanto, who trained with Bruce Lee, aka the guy who started Jeet Kune Do. You can see a lot of the Inosanto knowledge imparted on Eusebio in the films. When John Wick fights Cassian on the train, you catch some of the Filipino knife work from both men. When John Wick gets into it with Ms. Perkins in the first film, you can catch some Jeet Kune Do/Wing Chun trapping as the two exchange fists.
If you think of a fight in ranges, you have long range (guns), you have hand-to-hand (Jeet Kune Do and Kali), and you have grappling (judo and jiu-jitsu). While the middle stage is not a place John Wick likes to live, there are plenty of times when he transitions to standing judo by blocking punches or clearing knives.
There’s a shit-ton of judo on display in John Wick. Keanu Reeves even earned an honorary judo black belt after training for months before the first installment of the franchise. John Wick uses a collection of judo throws to take his assailants to the ground before a well-placed headshot. These moves include a handful of seoi nages and tomoe nages. This is really just scratching the surface, however. In the club fight from the first film, John Wick uses a beautiful uchi mata before firing a bullet between one dude’s eyes (4:14). Earlier in the same fight scene, he nails a kata guruma and a series of other throws. Basically, any villain who isn’t killed by a bullet from across the room gets tossed to the ground with move from John Wick’s judo arsenal.
Of course, tossing someone to the ground doesn’t often finish the fight. Which brings us to…
When the fight goes to the ground, John Wick can be seen using a variety of moves from the Brazilian jiu-jitsu playbook. Reeves trained with the legendary Machado brothers to up his jiu jitsu game, and you see moves blended with gun fun many times. During the final fight in John Wick: Chapter 2, Wick catches his opponent in what looks like a triangle choke. He holds him there for a few seconds to shoot another enemy on the stairs. Then, as John Wick is wont to do, he finishes the move by putting a bullet through the guy’s head (jump to 7:16). Hop back to the first film and the fight with Ms. Perkins and you’ll see Perkins put on a little clinic, forcing John Wick to escape kimuras (skip to 1:40), rear naked chokes (same video at 1:52), and even a crucifix (same video at 2:00).
Still, it’s John Wick’s penchant for guns that makes gun fu tick. But when you blend it with all these other arts it gets pretty damn entertaining.