Is John Wick “realistic?” The action is swift and brutal, largely captured without the aid of shaky-cam. Theatrics and monologuing are kept to a minimum, and every blow has the potential to be fatal. If an elite cabal of S-tier assassins did fight in the real world, it would probably go down like this, right?
The thing is, we know what hand-to-hand slugfests between the world’s greatest fighters look like, and in reality, John probably wouldn’t last long in the octagon. But on the screen, his marriage of MMA moves and Tom Clancy tactics was unlike anything action fans had seen before his 2014 debut.
Some folks call it authenticity, or believability. Film majors call it verisimilitude. I call it “making you believe that Keanu Reeves can kill three dudes with a bleeping pencil.”
And one way to do that is to put some of cinema’s greatest martial artists directly in his path of vengeance. Artists like Donnie Yen. This international superstar earned his room at the Continental through years of training and study. Drawing on his MMA expertise and the philosophy of Bruce Lee, Yen revolutionized action cinema and set the High Table for John Wick and other films that followed. So with John Wick: Chapter 4 now out, let’s dig in on the art of realistic movie combat, where Wick, Donnie Yen and Bruce Lee all converge…
Bruce Lee and Jeet Kune Do
In 1964, Lee lived in Oakland, CA, teaching at a martial arts studio and gathering fame for his legendary “one-inch punch.” A rival fighter named Wong Jack-man challenged him to a duel, and Lee accepted. No one quite agrees on how it all went down. There are multiple biopics depicting the battle and an entire feature-length film devoted to it, all with wildly different takes.
Let’s go with this one: Wong thought of it as a demonstration between rival schools, his own Northern Shaolin style vs. the Wing Chun that Lee learned from the real-life Ip Man. Wong offered a handshake and refused to use his “deadly” kicks for the exhibition. Lee, on the other hand, came to destroy. In his words, he chased down his opponent and wailed on the back of his head until his hands hurt. Out with tradition and form. Long live Jeet Kune Do.
Inspired by the duel, Bruce Lee created Jeet Kune Do as a martial arts philosophy defined by simplicity. Where the rules of traditional disciplines were too strict, Jeet Kune Do absorbs the most effective techniques and discards all else. “Casting off what is useless,” in Lee’s words, “freed from the bondage of styles, patterns, and doctrines.”
Jeet Kune Do means “the way of the intercepting fist.” No wasted movement, no excess energy, just “the direct expression of one’s feelings.” Feelings like pride in your martial arts ability, or your desire for championship gold. Feelings like rage over a murdered beagle puppy.
Jeet Kune Do absorbs the most effective techniques and discards all else, ‘Casting off what is useless’ in Lee’s words.
The fight scenes in John Wick clearly have bigger stakes than a San Francisco street smackdown. Wick is out to kill and there are hundreds of bloodthirsty goons willing to oblige him. There is no referee. Still, Jeet Kune Do’s freedom through efficiency is evident in every meticulous action.
Keanu’s chaotic killing sprees dance between fisticuffs, firearms, and everything in between. Anything is a weapon as long as it works, even if it’s a library book. Do whatever it takes to get this sword through that sternum. If you think you nailed that henchman, drop a round in his dome and make sure.
When John Wick premiered in 2014 it was a welcome deconstruction of over-the-top action film extravagance. It cast off the genre’s contrived setpieces and endless explosions and kept the heroic bloodshed, tactical espionage action, and impeccable fight choreography. Fight choreography pioneered by legends like Bruce Lee and Donnie Yen.
Donnie Yen and the Road to Martial Arts Mastery
Donnie Yen was born to be a master martial artist. His mother, Bow-sim Mark, is a t’ai chi grandmaster who is hailed as one of the most influential martial artists of all time. Yen’s family moved to Boston when he was 11 and spent his days training at his mother’s school, getting jacked at the Chinatown Boy’s Club, and brawling on the mean streets like his idol, Bruce Lee.
Yen left Boston to study martial arts with the Beijing wushu team, where he earned a sixth-degree black belt in taekwondo. On the way home, Donnie stopped in Hong Kong and hooked up with Yuen Woo-ping, the god of fight choreography behind films like Drunken Master, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and so many more.
Yuen Woo-ping was looking to replicate the success of his movies with Jackie Chan, and he decided that Donnie was the next big thing. He took the young martial artist under his wing and kicked off Donnie’s career in Hong Kong cinema with 1984’s Drunken Tai Chi.
Donnie Yen’s athleticism, skill, and charisma are readily apparent in his early work, like soloing a frenzied mob of Shaolin warriors in Iron Monkey. His first clash with former classmate Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China II foretold their later rematch in 2002’s Hero. He’d even step into his hero’s shoes in 1995 with a TV version of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. “I will not let Bruce Lee down,” he said.
After his early success, however, Yen’s fortunes faded. In 1997, he started his own production company, Bullet Films, but the two flops it produced nearly wiped him out financially. At the same time, the world of combat was rapidly changing, and classic Kung Fu wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
Imagine if John Wick was made in the early ’90s. Western action films were mainly focused on one-liners and bombastic destruction, and after a brief love affair in the ’70s and ’80s, Hollywood was largely oblivious to martial-arts action outside of kids movies, straight-to-video slop, and the odd Jean Claude Van Damme flick.
Can you picture Steven Seagal lethargically lumbering his way through the Russian mob? Young Keanu Reeves was no stranger to action, but he largely spent the decade working on his dramatic chops until he took the red pill. The world was simply not ready for the kind of action John Wick would present.
Its authenticity would have rung hollow in any other era, but at the turn of the millennium the art of fighting underwent a revolution built on the basics of Bruce Lee’s teachings that would have lasting impact on martial arts, Donnie Yen, and all of action cinema: MMA.
The Birth of Mixed Martial Arts
The modern sport of mixed martial arts developed independently around the world for decades. In Brazil, the Gracie family challenged fighters to test their Jiu-Jitsu skills in “everything goes” Vale Tudo fights.
In Japan, pro wrestlers like Antonio Inoki and “murder grandpa” Minoru Suzuki helped transform fake puroresu matches into the bone-crunchingly real sport of “shooto.”
In Hong Kong, Chinese immigrants from hundreds of martial arts schools battled for supremacy in the rooftop showdowns and street fights that produced Bruce Lee and his hybrid Jeet Kune Do.
In the United States, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament was held in 1993, live on pay-per-view from a half-full hockey arena in Denver, Colorado. The UFC was billed as a test to prove the superior fighting style, and early shows are filled with some very strange matchups. Where else outside of an arcade can you see a Sumo wrestler take on a Savate kickboxer?
Further tournaments saw strategies become refined and styles blend together. It wasn’t enough to be a world-class striker, grappler, or submission specialist. In MMA, you had to be all three. In time, the most effective elements of martial arts like jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, and Greco-Roman wrestling combined to form an entirely new style that embodies the pure practicality of Jeet Kune Do.
Donnie Yen: MMA ‘actually brought an answer to all martial art: Does it work?’
“The best fighter,” said Bruce Lee, “is not a boxer, karate or Judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style, to be formless.”
UFC exploded in popularity in the early 2000s. Monster-chugging, Affliction-shirted fight fans tuned in by the millions and MMA evolved from a sideshow into a sport. Donnie Yen was paying attention.
Martial-arts action was all the rage thanks to his old mentor Yuen Woo-Ping’s work in The Matrix, giving Yen the opportunity to serve as fight choreographer on films like Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II. As his influence grew in the West, he in turn absorbed everything he could about MMA and infused it in his own philosophy.
“I had studied so many traditional martial art styles,” he said. But MMA “actually brought an answer to all martial art: Does it work?”
He returned to Hong Kong and brought his new ideas to the screen with two highly influential films. In 2005’s SPL, also called Kill Zone, Yen’s classic skills are on full display in the iconic knife vs. baton battle against Wu Jing, but it’s the subsequent fight with Sammo Hung that changed martial-arts movies forever.
After opening with traditional wushu strikes and blocks, Yen shoots in for a takedown and does his best to keep Hung on the ground, mixing ground and pound with rear naked chokes and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu arm bars.
2007’s Flash Point took the concept even further. His seven-minute smackdown of Collin Chou is a smorgasbord of MMA techniques, from triangle chokes and heel hooks to forbidden Judo throws like the leg-shattering Kani Basami.
There’s plenty of wire-fu implausibility through the films, but Yen’s MMA moves lend the fights authenticity to an audience that has become accustomed to what actual combat looks like, and his influence quickly spread beyond the cinema. Modern fighters like Zhang Weili, the first Chinese champion in UFC history, credit Yen’s films for getting them into the sport.
Meanwhile, filmmakers around the world realized it was time to step up their game, culminating in the combat styling that came to define John Wick.
John Wick Changes the Game
Keanu Reeves began his martial arts journey with The Matrix, but there would be no instant download of elite skills for John Wick. He spent four months learning Judo and Jiu-Jitsu for the first film. For the sequels, he embarked on a grueling boot camp with BJJ experts and mixed-martial artists the Machado brothers. The on-screen results speak for themselves.
John Wick is not a wuxia superhero who effortlessly glides through the air. He struggles to apply techniques, scrambling to keep his opponents under control and transition to a more dominant position. When he’s not advancing and shooting, John is grappling, wailing on his enemies with a flurry of knee strikes and using a grab bag of MMA throws to get his opponents to the ground, snap their limbs, and set them up for a quick headshot that is definitely not sanctioned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Fight choreographer Johnathan Eusebio tried to root the action to “something that is real and applicable.” “The function of a technique,” he said, “has to be recognized as something efficient and justified in its application.” His inspiration? None other than Jeet Kune Do, which taught him to assess his actors’ physical attributes to determine how they would move and fight. Like Bruce Lee and Donnie Yen before him, John Wick’s fighting style “absorbs what is useful and rejects what is useless.”
As for Donnie Yen himself, he became an international superstar upon the 2008 release of Ip Man, an action-packed saga exploring the life of the man who trained Bruce Lee. The subsequent star power led to roles in big-budget blockbuster franchises like Star Wars, xXx, Mulan, and now, John Wick.
He plays John Wick’s old friend Caine, a blind assassin forced out of retirement to hunt down his old buddy Baba Yaga. Decked out in a killer ’60s suit inspired by, you guessed it, a young Bruce Lee, Yen is lending his credibility to the John Wick franchise to create a cinematic action experience that is equally as authentic as it is entertaining.