Keanu Reeves Lights Things Up as John Wick
by Max Evry
Keanu Reeves embodies the very heart and soul of the action genre as John Wick, a retired hitman who's forced out of retirement to get revenge on the Russian mobsters who took everything from him. What sounds like generic action revenger clay turns to silly putty in the hands of Reeves and his stunt coordinators-turned-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (also known as 87Eleven Action Design), absorbing traditional action beats from a million movies then bouncing them off the wall in a way you've never seen before.
From the blocking of gunfights to the cadence of dialogue between one ruthless killer and another, John Wick takes all expectations and surpasses them to create a fresh world of honor (and dishonor) among thieves. We had the chance to have a fun chat with the amiable Reeves about what makes John Wick tick, how the part changed once he was attached and where a sequel might take us.
ComingSoon.net: From when you read the script to the moment you stepped on the set with the suit and the gun, how much had the character evolved from the page with your input?
Keanu Reeves: Originally it was brought to me by a producer named Basil Iwanyk, with Thunder Road Pictures. I read the script and originally the role that Derek Kolstad had written was for an older gentleman. I said, "Basil, this is a really great world and a great character but I'm not 63." He was like, "I know, but I can see you in it!" So then I met with the writer and we just made some adjustments, did a couple of drafts and then it was time to find a director. I sent it to Chad and Dave, who I knew from the action world but also kept in touch with. They were directing 2nd Unit and trying to develop their own stuff. I went to them for the action design, but I was hoping they would want to direct it, then I got the call. "Can we direct this?" I was like, "Yeah man, just pitch us the vision," and they did.
CS: Would you say he became a little more sprightly once you came aboard?
Reeves: No, the mechanics and the architecture was always the same, his wife passing and the dog. There was just more details in terms of who the guy was. There are still elements of it, you see the clock ringing at 6 a.m. and this kind of routine that he has. Stuff that would take three weeks now takes a day. There was an upped tempo and intensity.
CS: The whole thing carries the spirit of the old school Water Hill, neon-drenched action movies.
Reeves: Yeah, widescreen! There's a lot of homage, but synthesized which I think is where a lot of art is now.
CS: The movie itself is not really a parody of the genre but everyone--especially you--carries themselves in this knowing way. You know that this movie takes place in an elevated world outside of reality. What kind of line did you and the directors walk in discussing the world and its rules?
Reeves: They had a certain color palette and temperature that they wanted to represent the real world in, which was cooler and kind of bluish. Then as John transforms into underworld the color temperatures warm up and get brighter. It's not true in every scene, but especially when he's at The Continental or the nightclub, even when he goes through the Red Circle there is this motif of the underworld. Working with the fantastic cinematographer Jonathan Sela they worked on that, it was really intentionalized. I think that's what you're feeling. There's this synthesized knowledge… they have so much experience in action, and in the literature of archetypes, that there's intention. What you're seeing is familiar, but for me it also feels kind of fresh.
CS: Yeah, it's not self-referential in a Shane Black way but it assumes you, the viewer, have seen an action movie before.
Reeves: Right, and if you haven't I think that it takes care of you. Even in the way that it starts and the emotional journey it goes on people can relate to. Whether you've seen an action movie or not, that character… the trail of blood that they shoot along, that the dog crawled back to him in its last breaths! This idea of losing something that's precious and wanting to get it back or to avenge or reclaim. I think it's universal.
CS: It's great, and it's interesting because you take so long setting up that John Wick is someone to be reckoned with, but you start off in such a place of normalcy. I think the audience is exhilarated, and it comes from the way you are, your Canadian niceness-factor.
Reeves: Right, yeah yeah! He's a nice guy!
CS: The best way to describe it is it's kind of like how Louis C.K. can get away with saying the sickest crap because he projects this air of normalcy.
Reeves: He's so good. Yeah, and you kind of feel like even though he tells you he's not there's a fundamental goodness to him, but the other side comes out and he can't help himself.
Reeves: John Wick kind of crosses over. I think he's aware that he's crossing over and there's a kind of grief to that as well. But he does it, he has to do it.
CS: This was also a little bit of a "Matrix Reloaded" reunion with Randall Duk Kim (The Keymaker) and Daniel Bernhardt (Agent Johnson). Was seeing those guys again like trading war stories at the VFW?
Reeves: Oh yeah! It was lovely to see Dan again, he's so lovely. I think what also comes out of that is there's so much in this film about backstory, you're being introduced to these people that have so much history, and I think the directors found actors that were right but could also carry that history in just the way we behave together. There's something that you might not know, but if you saw them together you're like, "Oh, they know each other." There's something behavior-ly that's in the texture.
CS: Even in your fight scenes, you can see these two guys…
Reeves: They've got a little history! He's choking me out, yeah.
CS: I'm not gonna spoil the movie for our readers, but while I was watching the movie I started to imagine a potential ending where you've killed everybody, you go home and there's a new dog waiting for you with a note from your dead wife, "Look John, I know you, the first dog wasn't gonna last too long, here's another one."
Reeves: (laughs) Oh no. "Here's another dog?" Yeah. It's a hard luck… There is something to that in a sense of, "Can John Wick stay above ground?"
CS: Right, and that it's just hard to be friends with John Wick.
Reeves: It IS hard to be friends with John Wick.
CS: He's such an interesting presence in this movie because…
Reeves: He's well liked!
CS: Yeah, exactly, he's a respected guy…
Reeves: People do sh*t for him.
CS: Right, and it's such a rich world to be mined, but if you were gonna do a sequel to this--and I think it is gonna hit--how do you enrich the character without exposing the mystique a little too much?
Reeves: I don't know, I mean the obvious way is to go do "the impossible job" that Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) talks about that got him out of the life… "I gave him the impossible task."
CS: Like a prequel, you mean.
Reeves: Yeah, like a prequel, but if it was moving forward I think it would have to be tied into character. If he's alone what would make him… either something from the past or he's not surviving alone, he's like an alcoholic. His hand is shaking. He's broken that basement and he's going home and he's trying to put the bricks back. He's still alone, walking the dog…
CS: Or there's one assassin even greater than The Boogeyman… and it turns out to be Carrie-Anne Moss!
Reeves: (laughs) Ohhhh, fantastic! Right, The Widow, oh no that's been done.