Q&A: Keanu Reeves enters the “zoo of revenge” as JOHN WICK
by Shawn Macomber
In homage to the film’s eponymous character, let’s dispatch with any namby-pamby vacillations or too-cute flourishes and employ some Bruce Lee-esque economy of motion (and language) here: JOHN WICK is hands down one of the best, most enlivening revenge thrillers to come down the pike in years—a prime-cut of uber-adrenalized, exquisitely realized action filmmaking that not only manages to bridge the gaps between A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, EASTERN PROMISES, the BOURNE franchise, and the glorious insanity of later DEATH WISH flicks, but also achieves a near-perfect balance of pulse-raising, harrowing combat; heart-rending pathos; absurdist fun; primal, righteous—if somewhat reluctant!—vengeance; and, oh yeah, a body count sure to fill the heads of morticians in the audience with visions of retirement to the south of France.
Want to talk stellar casts? Aside from Keanu Reeve’s smoldering, multidimensional, kinetic turn as the titular retired assassin dragged back into the bloody business, you’ve also got Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Michael Nyqvist (the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Alfie Allen (GAME OF THRONES), and MMA mainstay Keith Jardine, tearing up the scenery amidst a host of intimidating Russian mobster baddies and, in one of the more memorable action sequences committed to film recently, some very un-priestly priests.
JOHN WICK is, in short, a film completely unafraid to be exactly what it is, and because of this, it is able to find truth in the extremities that other films fumble.
Last month at Fantastic Fest, Reeves sat down with FANGORIA to chat about the allure of revenge, assuming the archetype, and avoiding the “badass” trap…
FANGORIA: Nearly every action film has some sort of quest for vengeance as its not-so-hidden subtext, but I believe this is your first straight-up revenge thriller, right?
REEVES: [Reeves considers this for a few moments, nodding his head slowly as if running through a mental checklist of his filmography.] Yes!
FANG: And so what was it that drew you to the sub-subgenre at this point in your career?
REEVES: Well, first of all, I liked the script. I liked the character. I liked the dualities within the story, this idea that you maybe can’t leave the past behind; that your past clings to you. And so my character, John Wick…
FANG: By the way, not to interrupt, but I love how every basically character throughout the entire film feels compelled to say the full name every time he comes up. Adds such an epic vibe…
REEVES: [Laughs] Right. [Reeves adopts a tone of faux awe; his eyes widen as he raises his arms reverently.] John Wick. So John Wickhas left another life and a part of himself behind to create this new world for himself with a woman he loves, his wife. And when she dies, he loses his anchor to that world and reverts back to his previous self and the old ways of his assassin days, unleashing this unusual power he possesses which allows him to reclaim something that was taken away from him; to reclaim his life, in a way. I think that’s a satisfying fiction for people—that idea of being able to reclaim, to get revenge.
FANG: Especially considering most of us out in the audience likely don’t have the power, capabilities, or wherewithal of a John Wick to actually right the wrongs or losses of our own lives...
REEVES: That’s why we enjoy watching stories that feature these archetypes, I think—you know, the Protector or the Hero; the Journey or the Revenge. It fulfills a desire deep within us. It’s fun and interesting to explore those sorts of roles and scenarios.
FANG: Obviously we don’t have time to take a deep dive into your acting process but you seem like a pretty friendly guy...
REEVES: Well, thank you.
FANG: Of course. And so when you have to go to this darker place and...
REEVES: Get my John Wick on?
FANG: Yeah, how do you tap into that darker side? Were there any particular roles or films in the subgenre you used as a touchstone?
REEVES: In terms of playing this role? No. I was really just getting all that information from the script and the directors. So I’d hear things like, “Get a turtleneck like Steve McQueen.” Or, “It’s mythological! John Wick’s Charon!” Or, “He’s a keeper of the talisman!” Whereas in my approach I’m more like, “Okay, that’s the guy in the hotel and that’s Ian McShane and here’s what my character is going to do.” They had the bigger meta ideas going on. I was just trying to play my role inside of it. And I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the different dimensions of the character. I enjoyed his grief. I enjoyed playing that. I liked that moment when he gets that letter [from his deceased wife]. And the guy just kind of alone in his house trying to put things back together. And then when he starts shooting people in the face...
FANG: Enjoyable as well?
REEVES: [Laughs] There is a trap in that, actually! You have to make sure you don’t start believing your own performance. Some actors can end up thinking, “Yeah, I’m a badass.” And that’s not a trap you want to fall into. Because you’re probably not a badass.
FANG: Speaking of badasses, there is this whole fascinating Russian mob aspect to the film—in the world as it is now those seem to be the go-to for-real scary guys these days. Does it help you as an actor to have guys across from you who look like the bad guys in this film look?
FANG: ‘cause there are guys in this film who seem legitimately scary.
REEVES: Oh, they are. They are. The couple of the guys there who...yes! Scary! Generally really very nice, though. I’d see them on set [Reeves adopts a Russian accent] “Hey Keanu, how’s it going? That was a good punch!” But, to answer your question, yes, it helps. It elevates the drama while also grounding the film in a way as well—the world feels real even though it’s a heightened version of the real world.
FANG: The brutality is established early on when some of the mobsters hurt the puppy. You could feel the tension in the theater during that scene. It’s interesting—not to get too heavy here—but even when, say, a police raid goes wrong, people seem to have a much more visceral reaction when an animal or child is hurt than an innocent adult.
REEVES: Right, right.
FANG: We seem to have a fundamental connection to that…
FANG: Exactly. It’s a pretty powerful way to launch the action of the movie.
REEVES: Definitely. I mean, John Wick loses his wife, his anchor, and she leaves him this dog to help him grieve and that dog gets stomped. [He puts a hand to his forehead and winces.] Don’t do that. Oh, man, no, no, no. Don’t do that.
FANG: The action in this movie is just top-notch, beautiful. Lots of long, looong almost EASTERN PROMISES-esque shots in this. The kind of stuff you can’t fake, really. How difficult was that to shoot?
REEVES: It is tougher to pull that off. But it’s not just you. It’s you. It’s the other actors. It’s the stunt performers you’re working with. It’s the rapport between everyone. I mean, for me, I saw it as an opportunity to learn. Working with [directors] Chad [Stahelski] and Dave [Leitch], who come from a stunt background, and who know action so well—how to shoot it, what it does, and what it means to do it—was like a master class. Actually, I met Chad on the first MATRIX, which is kind of where I went to school for action cinema working with the Wachowskis. But even before that with POINT BREAK or SPEED—you can take away something from each experience in films like these where the director and stunt coordinator put you in these situations you have to adapt to. My approach is to ask myself, How much can I do myself? How long can we hold this take? How can I help make this scene appear as if it is really happening?
FANG: Would you do another revenge movie or do you feel like you’ve already hit the high water mark here?
REEVES: I would. I feel like his is a high water mark but there’s also a lot of ways to skin that cat.
FANG: Or to tell that story...
REEVES: Ah, right—I should use nicer verbiage!
FANG: We just got through with what happens when dogs get hurt; we don’t want to start in on cats.
REEVES: [Laughs] Oh, I can see it now. John Wick’ll go through the whole zoo of revenge until finally he jumps the shark. “They killed my giraffe!”