Almost 20 years ago in 2002, “Equilibrium” bridged the gap between John Woo’s ‘heroic bloodshed’ action genre and the ‘John Wick’ contemporary martial arts blockbuster we have come to love today.
Whilst “Equilibrium” received mixed reviews at the time, its original fight choreography represents some of the most visually-striking action cinema of the past two decades.
In the year 2072, the global population is controlled by the emotion-suppressing drug, Prozium.
The Tetragrammaton state government intends to vanquish all evidence of mankind’s emotional bonds to each other and art through their ruthless ‘Clerics’. John Preston is the highest ranking Cleric, however when he misses a dose of Prozium, he begins to feel again…
Thematically, the film makes no apologies in its allusion to George Orwell’s “1984” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”. The concrete city of Libria may as well be Orwell’s ‘Airstrip One’ and ‘sense offence’ could easily be swapped out for ‘Thoughtcrime’.
However, the film’s originality can be found in the ‘Gun Kata’ that the government’s Cleric enforcers are trained in.
Director Kurt Wimmer adapted foregone Gun Fu fighting styles into a completely unique fighting system.
It was initially intended to have a fluid appearance on camera until fight choreographer, Jim Vickers proposed that a more rigid, robotic form would be more suitable for the unfeeling, calculated Clerics.
The system itself functions on the same fundamental principles that most weapon-based martial arts do: the weapon is an extension of the human body.
Where traditional weaponry may employ throwing stars, katanas, or nunchaku, “Equilibrium” utilizes guns. The Gun Kata relies on the statistical probability of where a Cleric’s opponent could be in a gun fight. The Cleric must then select the optimal position to attack a ‘maximum kill zone’.
During casting for the protagonist John Prescott, director Kurt Wimmer wanted an actor who could subtly span the entire emotional spectrum whilst hinting at the character’s internal conflict. After starring in “American Psycho” (1999), who better for the role than Christian Bale?
As we dissect the top 5 gun fu fight scenes from this dynamic, sci-fi action roller-coaster, keep in mind that Jim Vickers has a disdain for the use of wire stunts…
As he wasn’t attempting to suspend reality in “Equilibrium”, he purposely steered clear of wire stunts and still achieved breathtaking effects.
So, without further ado, let’s get ballistic with Equilibrium: Top 5 Gun Fu Fight Scenes!
5. The Mona Lisa Seizure
Starting with a bang (or several bangs), this scene is our first introduction to John Preston – the most lethal Cleric on the state force.
We also meet his partner ‘Partridge’, played by Sean Bean, who we come to find out is a ‘sense offender’.
Before the carnage ensues, Partridge anxiously glances up at Preston, only giving away his apprehension with a subtle flicker in his eyes.
Preston storms the dwelling where a large group of armed ‘sense offenders’ hide, dual-wielding pistols and surfing into the darkened room on the blown-out front door.
The first appearance of the Gun Kata sets the tone for the whole movie with Preston seamlessly dismantling the rebellious ‘sense offenders’. Using rigid, systematic gun fu, he lights up the room with gunfire while evading all shots from his oncoming adversaries.
When the action finds its conclusion, the Clerics locate a hidden stash of fine art, including the Mona Lisa herself. After a moment of consideration, Preston enacts the brutal ideology of The Tetragrammaton government the only way he knows how: “Burn it.”
4. Preston Saves the Puppy
Disclaimer: no puppies were harmed in the making of this explosive gun fu fight scene!
Preston has skipped a couple of doses of the emotion-suppressing drug ‘Prozium’ at this point. His humanity creeps in when he saves a puppy from being killed by the government’s enforcers, only now he tries to release his new, wide-eyed friend back into ‘The Nether’ where the rebellion hide out.
When a patrol catches him in the act, a breathtaking display of seemingly improvised Gun Kata obliterates the small army of troops intent on arresting him and killing the puppy.
A real diversity of slow motion shots, quick cuts, and dual-wielding backflips makes this a memorable scene.
Perhaps the most striking aspect though, is the contrast between Preston’s natural empathy for the dog and his brutal retaliation against the soldiers who try to harm it. We truly start to see him turn the coveted Gun Kata into a weapon against its creators.
3. Preston vs. Brandt Duel
When Preston’s new, ambitious partner, Brandt begins to suspect Preston of the murders in ‘The Nether’, he confronts him in an all-out swordplay fight with katana-style weapons.
This fight scene is stylistically much more grounded than most others in the film as the Gun Kata itself doesn’t feature. Instead, we get a good old-fashioned one-on-one duel!
The swords used for shooting this scene were made of turned wood, which would frequently break during filming as Christian Bale and Taye Diggs (Brandt) were given full license to strike each other with the weapons.
A real tension underpins this scene as we genuinely feel as though Preston could be exposed for ‘sense offence’ and the murders of the patrol soldiers. The stakes are not immediately life and death but the ramifications of Preston conceding the upper hand to his understudy are massive if he were to be found out.
2. Preston Rescues Underground Rebels
At this pivotal point in the film, Preston commits to aiding the rebellion in escaping a government raid.
It is another scene that departs from the usual ‘shoot-em-up’ gun fu style of the film as Preston repurposes his handguns in hand-to-hand combat.
Using them to pistol whip the group of soldiers that surround him, the sequence mirrors the puppy scene’s staging except with no shots fired from our rebellious protagonist.
Personally, the scene resembles the 10-man fight from “Ip Man” (2008), in which the character takes on multiple opponents at once with clinical finishing moves.
On top of that, adding slow motion to parts of the finishing sequence itself allows you to linger on every strike as it lands. We are left with the impression that Preston is still conscious of his striking technique but his purpose has flipped from persecutor of the rebellion to its defender.
1. The Final Showdown
The epic finale of the film takes place between Preston and Dupont, the antagonist played by Angus Macfadyen.
In this final showdown, two masters of the Gun Kata go to town with all the techniques we have seen up until this point.
Accompanied by Matrix-style music in the background, the double-wielding pistols return to carve out the Gun Kata philosophy: weapons are an extension of the body.
The choreography takes on a strong Wing Chun style, drawing influence from the Baat Jaam Do (Eight Chopping or Slashing Knives) form – a subsection of Wing Chun which uses butterfly knives as deadly weapons.
In terms of cinematography, this is perhaps the film’s best. An arc shot circles the two adversaries as they flow in and out of attacks, almost like a dance. It is quite the fitting final showdown in a series of spectacularly unique fight scenes.