Although John Woo-style gunplay had been adopted by Hollywood in the early 1990s, it wasn’t until The Matrix trilogy that Hong Kong-style martial arts became fully integrated into mainstream films.
That was, of course, down to the film’s Hong Kong martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who trained star Keanu Reeves, and other members of the cast, in martial arts for four months before the film began.
“The big thing about The Matrix was that the complex martial arts were not performed by martial artists,” says Keith Rainville, a martial arts commentator based in Los Angeles.
As the fight scenes were performed by the actors, they seemed more authentic. This approach has since been used with varying degrees of success in Hollywood, but a few films have stood out.
Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings , which Black Belt Magazine called “as good as any other martial arts film shot in cinema history”, and the violent John Wick film series have received praise from action aficionados.
As for The Matrix, the latest instalment The Matrix Resurrections, which was not choreographed by Yuen, has been judged a disappointment by martial arts fans.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Shang-Chi does more than feature martial arts – it’s a fully fledged kung fu film which pays homage to the genre, and features some excellent choreography which blends well with the special effects.
Choreography was carried out by the late and legendary Brad Allan, the first non-Asian member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team , Andy Cheng, also a former member of Chan’s team, and long-time Hollywood action and stunt choreographer Peng Zhang Li.
The martial arts on show include flashy wushu stylings; elegant tai chi, which is used by the hero’s mother (played by Fala Chen, who trained in the style); the explosive bajiquan ; and Ip Man’s choice of martial arts, wing chun.
As the film’s villainous elder statesman, Tony Leung Chiu-wai fittingly performs some hung ga, the foundational style of southern Chinese kung fu.
The magical iron rings at the centre of the plot are adaptations of real training rings, which harden the wearer’s wrists, while the hook swords were a staple of wuxia films in the 1960s and 1970s.
The hero’s sister Xu Xuliang (Zhang Meng-er) wields a rope dart, a very difficult weapon to handle, which was wielded with extreme skill by Shang-Chi co-star Michelle Yeoh in Magnificent Warriors .
“The martial arts action in this Marvel film, especially the bus fight sequence, which took a year to film, was clearly a homage to the classic Jackie Chan action films of the 1980s and early 1990s, with perfectly timed martial arts choreography and physical comedy,” says Hong Kong-born Asian films expert Frank Djeng.
“The wirework-style action sequences recalled classic fight choreography by Tony Ching Siu-tung [A Chinese Ghost Story ]. So in some ways the choreography is more of a call back to the past for Hong Kong action film fans, and you get a ‘been there, done that’ kind of feeling while watching it,” says Djeng.
The fact that lead actor Simu Liu is not a martial artist, and had to be trained to fight for the film, shows how much times have changed, says Rainville. “In the 1970s, when the comic Shang-Chi was created, a film version would have starred a martial artist, and the acting would have been seen as a secondary consideration.”
The three John Wick films, which star Keanu Reeves in the title role, feature extended martial arts sequences that are shot wide in long takes so viewers can see all the martial arts moves – they are not obscured by cuts, shadowy lighting, and too many special effects.
The first film of the series features what director Chad Stahelski calls “gun fu”, a mixture of martial arts and gunplay that is more extreme than the swordplay-influenced styles developed by John Woo in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s.
The later films also feature full-on hand-to-hand combat, including Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, karate, and Krav Maga, a style developed by the Israeli military that is useful for disarming opponents.
Stahelski says that the reason for the change is that Reeves was not in full physical shape when he joined for part one, so the focus was on grappling, throwing, and gunplay, rather than more strenuous punching and kicking. Reeves got fit for the rest of the series, so more extensive hand-to-hand combat appeared.
Stahelski was Reeves’ stunt double for The Matrix, and was trained by Yuen Woo-ping for that job.
Stahelski was mainly impressed by the preparations that the Hong Kong team made, especially the four-month training schedule that the stars had to undergo. In American films, the stars get a couple of weeks’ training at most.
For the John Wick films, Stahelski adopted a similar 15-week training schedule for the stars – which included Halle Berry – and also had the cameramen, and even the editor, around for the training and rehearsals, so that all the elements of an action sequence could be integrated from the start.
The actors trained every day except for weekends, and Stahelski increased the length of the sessions as they got stronger.
“John Wick continues the so-called ‘Hong Kong approach’ to filmmaking that began with Yuen Woo-ping in the first three Matrix films,” says Djeng. “That involves all the actors going through extensive training of the martial arts and the ‘gun fu’ choreography. That’s down to the film’s director having learned the process from working with Yuen Woo-ping.”
Adds Rainville: “The way that the gunplay is integrated into the martial arts in the John Wick films is great to see. The fights in those films will look familiar to viewers of Hong Kong ‘pistol operas’, but the combinations are new, and show extraordinary dedication from the actors and choreographers.”
In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved genre. Read our comprehensive explainer here.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.