Keanu Reeves Wants Revenge on the Set of John Wick
by Scott Collura
What we saw during our visit to the production of the new action-thriller.
Keanu Reeves is digging for buried treasure… well, buried treasure by hitman standards anyway. I’m on a soundstage in Maspeth, Queens, watching the star excavate a mysterious case from beneath the floor of a set made to look like a dark, dingy basement. As the camera moves closer in successive takes of the scene, we see that the treasure is in fact a case of neatly arranged guns and ammunition. These are the tools of John Wick, Reeves’ ex-assassin who is on a mission of revenge!
I visited the set of John Wick last December, where Reeves reunited with the filmmaking team of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, who also worked on the stunts of The Matrix films with the actor (Stahelski was one of Neo’s stunt doubles, in fact). The pair are making the jump to filmmaking with John Wick, and their old friend Keanu is coming along for the ride.
Ride is an apt term for the film actually, as Keanu’s title character returns to his old, murderous ways after his beloved 1969 Ford Mustang is stolen by the same guy who kills his dog. Say it ain’t so! But Wick learns that the thief and dog-killer is tied to a Russian crime boss (played by Michael Nyqvist)… the same crime boss Wick used to work for.
During a break from all that unburying of lethal weapons, Reeves sits down to chat with me (while crewmembers go back to reburying the case to prep for the next take of unearthing it, in what must be starting to feel like a Sisyphean task for the actor).
“John Wick has a past,” says Reeves. “He was an assassin, a very accomplished assassin, which Michael Nyqvist's character Viggo describes as the bogeyman, or rather the guy you would send in after the bogeyman. When we meet him in the film, he's put that aside. He fell in love. He met someone, Helen, and he got married; he got out of it. Then circumstances arise where she passes away from a mysterious illness. … But anyway, in his grief, she ends up sending him a dog. … So what happens is, this guy, his past has come back and this darkness that's inside John. To me, the film is also about grief. John goes to this place to reclaim the moment of his grief, to go back. This kid has robbed him of the gift from his dead wife, something that gave him a semblance of hope, an opportunity to move on, to grieve. So John reclaims his life back, but in a very Old Testament way.”
Which is to say, he goes medieval on their a$$es.
Reeves’ co-star Adrianne Palicki also gets some Old Testament style action. When I ask the Friday Night Lights and G.I. Joe actress whether she’s playing a good guy or not, she tells me that “it's bad guys against bad guys, ultimately.” Some are just more bad than others.
“Keanu, though, happens to be the hero of the movie -- although he used to be an assassin -- and I'm trying to kill him, so I am technically a very big bad guy,” she laughs. “I think that she's a really strong chick. We came up with a very fun backstory for the two of them. They were probably together at one point and lived this very similar lifestyle. But this is her life. She loves doing this and will do pretty much anything she has to to get the job done. So she's callous and bitchy and fun and funny. She's ultimately just bada$$.”
Both Reeves and Palicki are relatively beaten up for today’s shoot, or made to look that way anyhow, with blood stains and torn clothing. It would appear that this is the rule, not the exception, during this production, which is expected to be heavy on the action. In fact, the directors were originally approached to handle the stunts and action choreography for the film. But they decided to pitch themselves to the producers as directors.
“So over a weekend, we just jammed through and made this incredible sort of look-book, visual presentation,” says Leitch. “Then we had a lot of video viz and choreography that we'd done in the past that we'd always wanted to apply to something, and it really applied to John Wick. So we really edited it and put sounds to it, and then we just brought in this visual presentation. 'This is the movie we see when we read the page. What do you think?' And everybody responded to it."
The filmmakers also had a very specific vision for John Wick beyond the stunts, and that was to utilize New York City itself while also evoking an at times more old-fashioned cinematic approach.
“Just walking down the streets in New York, you feel like you're below level, not above,” says Stahelski. “So we try to create that feel with some of our shots. We took a lot of New York's old buildings -- pseudo Gothic to old-world New York -- and dressed them up a little bit. Our DP Jonathan Sela took a specific color palette per set, and we lit them in a more modern and edgy way, kind of spruced up some of the old with the new. Then we kind of forced perspective. Where some people would shoot up, we shot down. Where they'd cut, we didn't. Then we tried to take a bit of old-school blocking that used to be very prevalent in film -- not the five-camera, super shaky, handheld, super tight lenses. We tried to let things live a little bit more, even our blocking, our acting, our car chase stuff. It does take some of the kinetic energy away, but on the other hand it lets you live in the shot a little bit more... just an elongated kind of composure."
Reeves encouraged his old friends from his Matrix days to come aboard John Wick as well, not just because it helped to engender a shorthand on the film between the star and his helmers but also because there was already “a trust” there for him as an actor. Plus, he laughs, they got do some “cool s#!t” together!
“For me, I was excited to work with them because they know action so well, they know the genre so well,” he says. “They're really smart guys, they love movies, they love storytelling. [I knew] their experience could help us to do something emotional, but also really visceral and engaging. … There's some cinema, some cool fights. I got a chance to do a lot of training. They wanted me to do stuff that was more jujitsu and also do longer takes with handguns and long guns, you know, so the longer shots, you'll see me go through the action and shoot a lot of people.”
Which doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have room for some humor or lighter touches. Palicki says that the cast and crew are aware that too much action and darkness could put a movie like this into one of those, as she puts it, “eh” categories. And so the team has been sure to add some wit to the proceedings when possible.
“[The fear is] that it could get too serious or start taking itself too seriously,” she explains. “So there's this fight sequence where Keanu and I battle each other for five minutes. It's a really awesome fight scene, and we're both doing our own stunts. But it's so cool, and in the midst of all that there's still a little bit of banter, like in the sense of Mr. & Mrs. Smith where you can kind of go, ‘Okay, it's a little tongue-in-cheek here,’ and it's fun. It lightens up the mood a little bit, because it's a really dark movie.”
Stahelski also says his leading man’s appeal is another way in which John Wick elevates itself.
"Keanu has a weird ability,” says the director. “If you watch his stuff, he can be as tough as you want, but he never looks the tough guy part. He's got a sensitive side, but he can go icy cold. That's what you look at in the eyes. So we took it apart. We made a list like, 'These are the 10 best things about Keanu. These are the 10 things we like about hit men, and these are the 10 things we don't like about hit men.' Then you cross-reference and go, 'Wow, Keanu scores really high over here, and hit men score really low over here.' You know, so we just go back and forth so it's interesting. At the end of the day, I think he's an interesting character."
John Wick also shares a relationship with Nyqvist’s character Viggo, the Russian mobster who Wick used to work for (and who is now out to get Wick). Reeves promises that he has several scenes with the Swedish actor -- “quite epic scenes” -- who viewers will recognize from many films, including his villainous turn in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Interestingly, even though the two are now at odds with one another, they still share a certain father/son or mentor/student relationship.
“It's there in the script, and it was there in the playing of it,” says Reeves. “I think any boss has a kind of paternal aspect to the people they control. That's something that maybe Viggo feels, and I don't think John necessarily says, ‘You're my dad.’ But certainly from that other side one thing that I will say is that John does have an honesty with Viggo. He can talk to him because he's from that place.”
Ultimately, Reeves also brings some of his trademark Zen sensibilities to John Wick and his interpretation of the character’s journey.
“The film has elements of fate, double life, the past, character,” he says. “Does your character change? Can it change? It also has an idea of the shadow; the shadow world, the shadow of self. … He goes to his former self to reclaim his present, his enlightened self. So maybe there's a dialogue that's there. Maybe the film is kind of pitching this dialogue. The thing about it is that the dark side is successful.”
As another Keanu character might say, “whoa.”