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Heroic Bloodshed / Gun fu / Bullet Ballet

Heroic Bloodshed: A genre of Hong Kong action cinema revolving around stylized action sequences and dramatic themes such as brotherhood, duty, honour, redemption and violence. It has to be noted that while most Heroic Bloodshed titles use gun play there are some that use other weapons like swords. There are also titles that use stylized gun play but necessarily don't belong to Heroic Bloodshed. I will try to distinguish the several niches as much as possible or at least describe the style to a point that it becomes clear of what you can expect. 

I have always preferred  the films that featured stylized gun play or Gun fu. So let me give you another definition. 

Gun fu (also being referred to as bullet ballet): 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.

(Do keep in mind though that some movies have mixed so many genres that it becomes hard to distinguish them and that I will put them into a category that is most prominent.)  

I thought it was time to pay a little attention to this genre especially for the action lovers among us. Because there is no doubt that the following titles I am going to discuss are one of the best action titles in existence. There is only one man who is the absolute king of the Heroic Bloodshed genre. And that is John Woo. With his movies like a Better Tomorrow 1 and 2, The Killer and Hard Boiled he introduced a style that has been copied many times but till date never has been surpassed. My absolute favourite movie of this genre is Hard Boiled. I can watch it over and over again and never get bored. A true action classic. So here a review of that movie and other titles made by John Woo.

Hard Boiled (1992)

"Heroic Bloodshed as it should be"

JOHN WOO IS GOD AND CHOW YAN FAT IS THE SON OF GOD!!! (Ok, this might be a little on the dramatic side but trust me you will be shouting too once you have seen this film. 

This is an action movie for the fans. The first scenes will surprise you and seem chaotic. But if you watch it more often and carefully you will see a well choreographed action sequence which is just a sample of the rest of the movie. The sequences will improve and amaze you every minute. Fasten your seatbelt's and get ready for a roller-coaster ride. This one surpasses FACE/OFF easily. 

Chow Yan Fat (Tequila) is the hard boiled cop who is trigger happy and brutal. But even then you just love the guy. Talk about charisma. As this wasn't the case with John Travolta (who was unconvincing as the good cop in FACE/OFF). 

He is accompanied by Tony Leung who does the more atlethic stuff even when officially he is no martial artist. Although he is one to put in the work to make it look convincing. Leung as Alan is the undercover cop who has a real hard time remainining on the righteous path since he has to do hits in order to not get outed. He also does feel loyalty towards his criminal brethren which is understandable. Your are bound to form bonds and get fond of people. I think he does a real good job of showing the agony he has to go through which he perfected in a similar role in Infernal Affairs (vastly superior to remake The Departed). 

Then there is Anthony Wong. I wouldn't exactly call his character deep and complex. Yet he does give him something that doesn't make him seem downright evil even when he clearly is. And that brings me to the character Mad Dog. Yes, Hard Boiled had him first. I am talking to you The Raid fans. Mad Dog is one of the most ruthless and most skilled villains put on the screen but even he has a moral code. He refuses to kill innocents. It's just one of the elements that make these characters and the film so compelling.

All the trademarks from John Woo's movies are represented, pigeons, jazz music, (speed)boats, friendship and shootouts (in slow motion), lot's of slow motion. If you liked the Matrix trilogy, then you will love Hard Boiled, because the action is far better (and without the digital effects, cgi). And if there was doubt this is one of the movies in the genre where the Warschowski brothers got their inspiration from. Max Payne (the video game) is a tribute to this movie and every movie John Woo made in the genre. Need I say more!  

It's astonishing to me how many people who love John Wick for example for some reason still have no clue that Hard Boiled even exists. People don't seem to realize that if it weren't for this film in particular John Wick would never be. John Woo showed how one could reinvent the action genre and still be releveant so many years after because like I said before nobody has surpassed him. 
Some of you might be wondering why there haven't been real legitimate new Blu-ray or 4K releases. This gets explained in the video underneath. Which for me was the main reason to purchase a German version (TG Vision). It has German, Cantonese audio and German and English subtitles. And as far as I can tell it does look like an improvement over past releases.

The Killer (1989)

As a big fan of John Woo and Chow Yan Fat I have to recommend this movie to people who haven't seen this already. It shows you action without the use of CGI and still manages to surprise you. There are lot of HK action movies who are compared and categorized in the same genre as The Killer.  But to be honest a lot of these titles aren't in the same league. 

The action, (the most beautiful slowmo shootouts) in combination with the drama make this a classic of superior quality. The story isn't that interesting. The reason that this doesn't matter is Chow Yan Fat. He manages to carry this movie all by himself. His pain is our pain. He will get you involved in such a way that you really care about his character without any effort. His charisma is overwhelming. It is just a joy to see this man in action. The interactions between him and Danny Lee are also something to look out for. Like Hardboiled this is a roller-coaster ride. People who really love action movies have to have seen this movie at least once!

Edit: 15-03-2020:
So I purchased the Blu-ray version of The Killer hoping it would be be an improvement on the DVD I own. I think it is the Criterion release which seems to be superior to this Blu-ray. I might explore this a little further to do a proper comparison. One thing is for sure. This does make me appreciate the 4K Ultra HD Remastered versions from several HK flicks a little more since they actually are a big improvement overall.

A Better Tomorrow (1986)

This is the movie that started it all. A new genre was born called Heroic Bloodshed. A Better Tomorrow seems like a typical Hong Kong gangster drama. It is not, it is much more thanks to John Woo. The story has it's moments. But like most of his movies it is about the action. The three main characters are Chow Yan Fat, Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung. Although Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung give good performances. Chow Yan fat steals the show by far. It is a joy to see him, no matter what scene it is. He is the embodiment of coolness in this movie. It is to bad such a fine and versatile actor doesn't get the chance to make really good movies in Hollywood.(Honestly the guy can do any genre you throw at him from drama to comedy. And yet they cast him in productions that are merely bad copies of those he starred in Hong Kong).  As I mentioned before this movie is about the action. The slow mo shootouts are superb. The scene where Mark kills some bad guys after they betrayed Ti Lung is classic and is parodied very often. You will see why. The setup to this shootout is great. And if you never had seen any of Woo's movies you never would have expected it. There is also quite some melodrama going on. And I know that for some this will be the time that they fast forward to the action scenes. However I do think that it adds to the ultra violence displayed here. If the characters you care for get shot in slow motion that simply gets to you. Woo knew exactly how to emphasize these moments visually. The climax is nothing short of brilliance. So do yourself a favour and go watch this movie already if you haven't. 

A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987)

Yes,this movie is a masterpiece! It has all of the trademarks John Woo is known for. And very important it has Chow Yan Fat. He is back as Mark's brother Ken. Maybe a bit to convenient,but who cares. Chow Yan Fat is extra cool in this movie. Is that possible? Yes, it is! Nice detail is the scene where Ken receives Mark's coat with the bullet holes (in which he got shot at the end of Better tomorrow 1). He uses these holes to put in grenades and guns.Like it was planned that way. There is more melodrama which in this case intensifies the action sequences. The shoot outs are bigger and better than the first movie. 

(Don't read beyond this if you never seen the movie before. However I think knowing the outcome doesn't change the enjoyment one bit.)

Every main (male) character dies at the end. Heroic Bloodshed to the maximum. 

*End Spoiler* 

If you look closely to most of the scenes you will see where Quentin Tarantino got his ideas from (for example men in black suits with guns). Also a sequence is used in True Romance for which Quentin Tarantino wrote the screenplay. This movie is the best of the series and without a doubt the third best movie John Woo has made. With The Killer being the second best and Hard Boiled being his best all time! Watch it already.

Other Titles (Non John Woo):

Return Engagement 

a.k.a. Zai zhan jiang hu (1990)

Return Engagement (RA) is one of those bloodshed titles where the action is more important than the the story and drama. The action, especially the ending is one to watch over and over again. Being a fan of heroic bloodshed with gun play (in slow motion), I can't get enough of these titles. Compared to action movies made in US, this one is a gem. If they made more titles like this one than I would be in heaven. Alan Tang really does a good job as the father who tries to make a mends with his daughter. Simon Yam is the typical bad guy in these kind of movies, but still he delivers style to his acting. Andy Lau plays Alan's sidekick with flair. RA made in the eighties certainly is still enjoyable now. Watch it!

City War 
a.k.a. Yi dan hong chun (1988)

A movie containing Chow Yan Fat and Ti lung cannot go wrong and it doesn't. The chemistry between them is wonderful. You will laugh with them and cry with them. This movie is more about their friendship and actually has not much of a plot. For fans who expect a movie like "A Better Tomorrow", do not worry because the exploding finale makes the movie worth watching. Also there is not much style except for the action scenes. They are done superbly. Very surprisingly there is also a lot of humor and romance ,which shows the talent of Chow yan Fat. This movie can be described as an average heroic bloodshed title.

Review Flaming Brothers (1987)

This title doesn't do justice to the genre heroic bloodshed. Yes, there is bloodshed en yes it is heroic, but for the most part it is a story about a relationship between two friends (Alan Tang and Chow Yan Fat) who happen to be gangsters. Let's face it, compared to John Woo titles: Better Tomorrow series, Hard Boiled, the Killer, this movie doesn't have a chance! There is not enough action to make this worthwhile. But the acting is outstanding by Chow Yan Fat and Alan Tang. Furthermore there is not much of intrigue or excitement, so why should i watch this? Still Alan Tang really has potential for greater action drama's than this one. Return Engagement is a better example how they could combine drama in this fashion with action.

More titles for your consideration:

Bullet in the Head (John Woo's equivalent of Apocalypse Now or secretly the better prequel to A Better Tomorrow)
A Better Tomorrow III (Tsui Hark had to do it alone and apparently was heartbroken)
-Big Heat (Click on the title for the review)
-Expect the Unexpected
-Fulltime Killer
-Hard Target (John Woo)
- Blackjack (John Woo)
-Just Heroes (John Woo)
- Silent Night ( A John Woo light)
-Tragic Hero a.k.a. Black Vengeance (sequel to Rich and Famous)
-Big Bullet (Technically not Heroic Bloodshed but does feature 
 some awesome shootouts. Click on the title for the review.)
- Welcome to the Punch (Tribute to Heroic Bloodshed)
- China White (Heroic Bloodshed in Amsterdam)
- The Replacement Killers (Heroic Bloodshed A. Fuqua style)
- Crying Freeman (a classic)
- Face/Off (Very peachy!)
- The White Storm (modern Heroic Bloodshed title done right!)
- Manhunt (John Woo is parodying himself)
- City on Fire (more gritty drama with some bloodshed!)
- Final Justice (1988) (Stephen Chow and Danny Lee in decent but average title)
- The Mission a.k.a. Cheung foh (almost anti Woo but slick anyway)
- Exiled a.k.a. Fong yuk ( Johnnie To's take on Spagetti Western)
- Vengeance a.k.a. Fuk Sau (Johnnie To favours style over good action and substance. Almost a farce!)
- A Hero Never Dies (Not really heroic bloodshed!)
- Breaking News (pretension kills the enjoyment)
Joshua Tree (Vic Armstrong copies John Woo's Hard Boiled)
- The Prisoner a.k.a. Island of Fire (Jackie and Sammo doing Heroic Bloodshed)
- Lethal Panther (Tries to mimick John Woo without actually understanding him and his work. Yet strangely enough, it's still entertaining!)
- Project Gutenberg (Not an action flick, but does have one big action sequence reminiscent of Chow Yun-Fat in his John Woo days)
- Long Arm of the Law II (Elvis Tsui at his best!)
- Long Arm of the Law III (Raw, gritty but will give you your bloodshed fix)
- Full Contact (pretty insane action flick)
- Ballistic Kiss (Donnie Yen tries bloodshed and fails!)
- Score (Atsushi Muroga is the Japanese John Woo!)
- Legacy of Rage (people wanted this to be Bruce Lee 2.0, instead they got bloodshed Brandon Lee style)

Other Gun fu titles that aren't technically Heroic Bloodshed titles but are similar or use elements from the genre in some way:

- War
- Boy Kills World

I realize that I have reviewed some girls with guns titles that technically should be on this list as well. So click on the image underneath to see those titles.  

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