Gun fu, a portmanteau of ‘gun’ and ‘kung fu,’ is the style of sophisticated close-quarters gunplay seen in Hong Kong action cinema and in Western films influenced by it. It often resembles a martial arts battle played out with firearms instead of traditional weapons. It may also be described by other terms such as ‘bullet ballet,’ ‘gun kata,’ or ‘gymnastic gunplay.’
The focus of gun fu is both style and the usage of firearms in ways that they were not designed to be used. Shooting a gun from each hand, shots from behind the back, as well as the use of guns as melee weapons are all common. Other moves can involve shotguns, Uzis, rocket launchers, and just about anything else that can be worked into a cinematic shot. It is often mixed with hand-to-hand combat maneuvers. Gun fu has become a staple factor in modern action films due to its visually appealing nature (regardless of its actual practicality in a real-life combat situation). This is a contrast to American action movies of the 1980s which focused more on heavy weaponry and outright brute-force in firearm-based combat.
Director John Woo originated the style in the Hong Kong film ‘A Better Tomorrow’ in 1986. The film launched the ‘heroic bloodshed’ genre in Hong Kong, and gun fu action sequences became a regular feature in many of the subsequent heroic bloodshed films. John Woo continued to make several classic heroic bloodshed films, all featuring gun fu, and all starring leading man Chow Yun-fat. Chow wielding a gun in each hand became an iconic cinema image around the world.
Film critic Anthony Leong wrote of the gunfights in ‘A Better Tomorrow,’ ‘Before 1986, Hong Kong cinema was firmly rooted in two genres: the martial arts film and the comedy. Gunplay was not terribly popular because audiences had considered it boring, compared to fancy kung-fu moves or graceful swordplay of the wu shu epics. What moviegoers needed was a new way to present gunplay– to show it as a skill that could be honed, integrating the acrobatics and grace of the traditional martial arts. And that’s exactly what John Woo did. Using all of the visual techniques available to him (tracking shots, dolly-ins, slo-mo), Woo created beautifully surrealistic action sequences that were a ‘guilty pleasure’ to watch. There is also intimacy found in the gunplay– typically, his protagonists and antagonists will have a profound understanding of one another and will meet face-to-face, in a tense Mexican standoff where they each point their weapons at one another and trade words.’
Stephen Hunter, film critic for ‘The Washington Post’ wrote, ‘Woo saw gunfights in musical terms: His primary conceit was the shootout as dance number, with great attention paid to choreography, the movement of both actors within the frame. He loved to send his shooters flying through the air in surprising ways, far more poetically than in any real-life scenario. He frequently diverted to slow motion and he specialized in shooting not merely to kill, but to riddle — his shooters often blast their opponents five and six times.’
The popularity of John Woo’s films, and the heroic bloodshed genre in general, in the West helped give the gun fu style greater visibility. Film-makers like Robert Rodriguez were inspired to create action sequences modelled on the Hong Kong style. One of the first to demonstrate this was Rodriguez’s ‘Desperado’ (1995). ‘The Matrix’ (1999) played a part in making gun fu the most popular form of firearm-based combat in cinema worldwide; since then, the style has become a staple of modern Western action films.
One classic gun fu move consists of reloading two pistols simultaneously by releasing the empty magazines, pointing the guns to the ground, dropping two fresh magazines out of one’s jacket sleeves, or strapped to one’s legs, into the guns, and then carrying on shooting. In the film ‘Bulletproof Monk’ (2003), The Monk With No Name (portrayed by Chow Yun-fat) empties two pistols, ejects the magazines and spins to kick the empty magazines at his assailants. In ‘The Rundown’ (2003), Beck (Dwayne Johnson) fires two shotguns, flips both to be up-side down and pointing backwards, and snaps them between his arms and torso to reload them in an instant.
1992 saw the introduction of gun fu to the horror movie script. In Sam Raimi’s cult classic ‘Army of Darkness’ (1993), Ash (Bruce Campbell) uses a 12 gauge Remington double-barreled stage coach gun as both a close combat weapon and as the gun it is. Many scenes show Ash doing flips over the various undead, landing, shooting over his shoulder, even throwing the weapon and catching it only to continue to fire.
The character John Preston (Christian Bale) demonstrates a system of martial arts called Gun Kata in writer/director Kurt Wimmer’s ‘Equilibrium’ (2002). Gun Kata is differentiated from other Gun Fu styles by a focus on rote memorization of probabilities, instead of feats of pure reflex. Through repeated simulations and practice, practitioners are able to fire at their attacker’s position, while moving out of their attacker’s most likely return fire trajectory and essentially dispatching their enemy while dodging their enemies’ bullets. Preston also has special devices mounted into his sleeves/wrists that feed magazines smoothly into his weapon, but the Gun Kata itself provides him with optimum firing angles as well as defensive postures and movements.