How Keanu Reeves and His Former Stunt Double Turned ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ Into An Ass-Kicking Sequel for the Ages
Once upon a time, Chad Stahelski was Keanu Reeves' stunt double. Now, he's directing him in one of the best action sequels ever made.
by David Ehrlich
“John Wick” director Chad Stahelski was 30 years old when he heard the six magical words that changed his life forever: “Hey, you look like Keanu Reeves.”
For most of us, that would be a flattering compliment; for Stahelski, a stuntman and former kickboxer who got his start doubling for Brandon Lee after the actor was killed in a freak accident on “The Crow,” it was a call to action. “I was working on a show called ‘The Pretender,’” he recalled over a cup of coffee in the swank foyer of TriBeCa’s Greenwich Hotel, “and my boss noticed the resemblance. He said ‘You do all that martial arts stuff, right? They’re having an audition for something down in Burbank. Why don’t you go check it out after you’re done with this.”
Stahelski will never forget what happened next, even though it’s a miracle he can remember it at all. “I got hit by a car [on the show],” he shrugged. “Cracked my head, knocked myself silly.” He paused for a sip. “I was getting hit by a car that day — the problem was that the shoot was running late.” (For most people, the worst part about getting flattened by a car is being flattened by a car. For Chad Stahelski, the worst part is the inconvenience.)
“We wrapped at 1pm, and I’ve got to be on the other side of town by 2pm,” he said. “My head’s still bleeding, my jeans are ripped, and I can’t remember my own name. But I make it to this big warehouse and I step inside. The first thing I see is Keanu, drenched in sweat and wearing a neck brace, a team of five kung-fu guys coming at him.” That’s when they noticed the observer. “‘Pick up the staff,’” legendary Hong Kong choreographer Yuen Woo-ping instructed him. And so he did. “They beat the shit out of me for the next hour and a half,” Stahelski grinned with reverent machismo. “I was like, ‘Holy shit … what did I just walk into?’”
He’d just walked into “The Matrix.” But more than that, he’d also walked into the most meaningful artistic collaboration of his career. Matching up with Reeves gave Stahelski the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an epochal action franchise, while meeting the Wachowskis and producer Joel Silver allowed him to partner with powerful filmmakers who recognized the vision and control that he displayed during fight scenes. They gave him a chance to shoot second and third unit, which led to gigs coordinating stunts on mega-projects like “300” and “The Expendables,” and pitching in behind the camera whenever he could. Stahelski helped bring the elegance of martial arts into action movies previously defined by stage combat and steroidal brawn, eventually teaming up with a stunt pro named David Leitch to create 87Eleven Action Design. Their company’s slogan: “Kicking ass never looked so good.”
So when it came time for Reeves to helm his bruising directorial debut, “Man of Tai Chi,” he knew exactly who to call. And when Reeves received the script for a movie called “John Wick,” he knew exactly to whom he should send it.
“Originally I was thinking they’d just shoot the action,” Reeves told me over the phone, “but I was also kind of hoping they would want to direct it.” They did. “We’d been hit by enough cars,” Stahelski said. “Dave and I didn’t want to lose our stunt background, but we wanted to take that action and go somewhere with it.”
And so, 16 years after Chad Stahelski first doubled for Keanu Reeves, he got the chance to direct him. The hyper-violent saga of a retired and recently widowed assassin who launches into a rampage of revenge when a group of ill-advised mobsters kill his puppy, “John Wick” slipped into theaters on October 24, 2014 and grew to become a slow-burning, word-of-mouth sensation, grossing $86 million worldwide against a $20 million budget.
Making a modestly budgeted (and extremely profitable) action movie about a man avenging his butchered beagle… well, it turns out that was the easy part. The hard part was doing it twice.
Stahelski is exactly who you’d want him to be. A solid, square-jawed 48-year-old whose eyes sparkle with an immutable sense of mischief, he’s the kind of guy who invites you to go drinking before he even knows your name. (“You’re gonna be in Berlin next week, too? Give me a call, we’ll hit the town with Keanu!”) He could have been a movie star if he hadn’t been so good at standing in for them. He carries himself with the ease of someone who doesn’t need to announce that he’s the toughest motherfucker in the room — it takes a genuine badass to look that relaxed, to sink into a hotel chair like it’s a bubblebath — and even at the end of a long day, he fidgeted with the childlike joy of a guy who’s still genuinely excited by his own life.
I was wondering if all stuntmen were so serene, if it was a job requirement when you get shot at, set on fire, and otherwise stare death in the face on a daily basis, when Stahelski said: “I’m so fucking nervous!”
Oh. Wait, what?
“Doing a sequel? I’m shitting my pants.”
Much like its namesake, the first “John Wick” was deadly in large part because nobody saw it coming. It isn’t easy to independently finance a full-bodied action extravaganza at bargain-basement prices, but working on that scale buys you the one thing that major studios can seldom afford: The element of surprise. Of course, Stahelski was just as surprised as the rest of us. He laughed as he reflected on the original film’s fateful Fantastic Fest premiere: “We hadn’t done any test screenings because we didn’t have any money, and we couldn’t walk out of the theater because they stuck us in the middle. We knew that we had something good, we just didn’t think that anybody was going to like it. So when the crowd went mental we were just like… ‘Really?’ The whole thing far, far exceeded my expectations.”
“I really liked the first film, and had an amazing time making it,” said Reeves with the bluntness of a movie star who would tell you if he didn’t. “It was received okay, but I didn’t start to feel it on the street until it got a second life on a cable and pay-per-view. That’s when people started coming up to me and saying: ‘Nice to see you, Mr. Wick.’”
I’m not sure I recognized that there was a “John Wick voice” until I heard Reeves switch to it on the fly, but the stark contrast between the actor’s natural baritone and his character’s terse growl is a testament to how perfectly he’s fused the action hero to his screen persona. “It’s been really great to feel the enthusiasm for the second one, even from my friends. They’re all like, ‘Can’t wait for Wick!’ That doesn’t happen all the time.”
It can be terrifying when it does, not that Stahelski lacked for confidence. “The first time around, we didn’t quite know who John was,” the director confessed, sitting up in his seat. “The second time, we knew what tone we wanted; we knew where we wanted the action to go. We had some money, and we had my crew — all the people I’d been working with for the last 10 years — so I knew I’d stay on schedule. I knew I had the training. I knew that I could craft a two-hour film that would look great, sound great, have great action, and go all over the world. No fear, no fucking problem.”
This time, however, the issue wasn’t making a good movie; it was meeting expectations. “It’s flattering when people like what you’ve put out,” he reasoned, “it’s unnerving for a little bit, but you grow used to it. But when you feel this weird bond between what you’ve done and everyone who liked it, it’s petrifying to go back in — to jump back in without tripping over yourself. It’s all about being original and doing something new. If you do it well, you get high-fived. If you come just a little bit short, the penalty is heavy.”
So Stahelski watched every action sequel out there. He watched every chintzy installment of the “Taken” saga, and all of Jason Bourne’s increasingly chaotic trips down memory lane (presumably including that inexplicable Jeremy Renner spinoff). Judging by the self-administered homework he listed for me, it sounds like he paid special attention to the dumbest examples, eager to avoid repeating their mistakes.
It takes a lot to make a guy like him nervous, but he was. He still is. The reviews had yet to come out when we met, and Stahelski sparred with my sincere enthusiasm for his sequel like he was checking for weaknesses. “What was your favorite part?” he asked, catching me between sips. I don’t think he was looking for an ego stroke so much as he was trying to confirm that I had a favorite.
I do. It’s a ruefully funny bit that involves Wick — and a rival assassin played by Common — using their silencers to discreetly exchange bullets in a very public place. It’s the kind of scene that could only make sense in the John Wick Cinematic Universe, epitomizing the clever silliness with which “Chapter Two” leverages the first film in order to create a follow that feels more like a rabbit hole than an expansion pack.
Stahelski wouldn’t have had it any other way. When I mentioned that his new film has an “The Empire Strikes Back” vibe, he quickly countered that he aspired to a different ’80s classic. “I loved what James Cameron did in ‘Aliens,’” he said. “Ridley Scott is a hard act to follow, but Cameron did what Captain Kirk would’ve done: He changed the situation, he showed you the fucking shark. He went deeper into that world, and so we followed John deeper into ours.”
The first installment had a disarmingly adorable dog and fight scenes of tactical fluidity, but the fanbase also embraced how Derek Kolstad’s script furnished the window-dressings of a cartoonish criminal underworld, and how the directors used the scantest traces of that mythology to support their heightened and hypersaturated aesthetic. Wick, we learned back in 2014, once belonged to an invisible syndicate of highly trained assassins for hire. They all know each other, they use their own currency, and they all stay at the same hotel (where violence is strictly forbidden). Their well-appointed world remains on its axis for one simple reason: Everyone obeys a set of titanium-clad rules. Rules that “Chapter Two” illustrates in great detail, and breaks with great pleasure.
“We weren’t going to over-plot it,” Stahelski explained. “John Wick wasn’t going to save the world, he wasn’t going to have kids, there wasn’t going to be some international agency looking for him.” The story might take him on a trip to Rome and wrap back around to expose the hilariously mundane network of killers that exist right beneath the bustle of New York City, but the title character is always in focus. “John Wick fucked himself over, and this movie is about him trying to pay off that karmic debt.”
“We wanted to give you a glimpse of a broader world,” Kolstad said, “but we had to maintain the fact that John had changed.” If the origin film had fun pointing out a curtain draped our view of New York City, “Chapter Two” takes a good look behind it. “There was the John of the first one, the Babayaga, the shattered man. And now there’s the John of the second movie. He’s not going to go back, he’s this new being. He’s found his salvation and he’s lost it. When we talk about further entries in the franchise, we always stay true to the notion of we never want to root against John. We want John to retire on that houseboat alone somewhere with his new dog. Does he deserve it? Maybe, maybe not. But we root for him.”
And Wick roots for everyone in return. “I totally recognized the pressure that Chad and Derek were under,” Reeves recalled, “so I felt like my job was to be the enthusiasm guy. I was like ‘Yeah, there’s second album syndrome. Yeah, there’s sequel pressure. But let’s just do it, guys, it’s gonna be great!’” He laughed. “I was the cheerleader. I trusted the vision.”
According to Stahelski, the biggest key to action-movie success lies with what you can’t see. “Ninety percent of it is just hiding stuff,” Stahelski argued. “Hiding the double, hiding the lights, hiding the wire, hiding the fuck-ups.” That ethos came into play during both of the biggest set pieces in “Chapter Two,” especially the blowout gunfight in the catacombs of Rome. The director, who insisted on months of meticulous prep (afforded by Reeves’ passion for the project), couldn’t figure out how to light the dim, cavernous space so that it could accommodate the wide shots that his balletic action style requires. Fortunately for Stahelski, cinematographer Dan Laustsen had an idea: “He was like ‘Fuck it, we’ll put the lights in the movie and it’ll be awesome.” So they did. And it was. Turning the subterranean maze into a nightclub complete with strobe lights and video projections, Laustsen provided his director with the conditions he needed to clearly show John Wick doing what John Wick does best.
“It’s much more about hiding than it is enhancing,” Stahelski said, underscoring the patient, long-take aesthetic that he imported from Yuen and several generations of Asian filmmakers whose stars were martial artists capable of the moves that Hollywood action movies had to obscure with shaky-cam and choppy cuts. “It’s all about seeing the guy.”
There are only so many guys in the Hollywood system who can be seen in the way that Stahelski’s cinema requires. Reeves is one of the very few. “I dare you to find another actor and his representation that’s going to go: ‘Yeah, take my guy for five months. We won’t charge any extra money. He’s not going to do his three jobs where he can make $10 million-$15 million,” Stahelski said. “He’s going to live in a gym, possibly hurt himself, just to do a movie that’s about a puppy dying. Also, it’s cool if you want him to fall in front of that puppy, look as wimpy as possible, and then get into a fight with a beautiful actress in his boxer shorts.’ There’s no way.” But with Reeves, that’s the only way. He gets it. He keeps it honest.
And that honesty shows up on screen, in the fight scenes (during which the 52-year-old actor can be seen tumbling around like a vintage Donnie Yen), but also in the moments where he’s called upon to show who John Wick really is; the idea that “it’s all about the guy” feels even more relevant when a gun’s not involved. Reeves has so perfected the stoic modern samurai that the character seems like a natural extension of his own, making it easy to forget that he’s acting at all.
Stahelski smiled when I asked him how much of John Wick was shaped by the man who plays him. “That samurai stuff… you know, Keanu is one of the politest motherfuckers. He has the right etiquette. He keeps a little distance but, as far as formalities go, he’s incredibly generous. He’s got that little austerity to him, which I really dig. When he’s sad, he’s fucking sad. When he’s happy, he is fucking happy. There’s very little wall, very little need for interpretation for him. He’s very stoic, but that’s because he’s internal. But if he smiles, it’s a genuine smile. And when he’s focused, that is Keanu Reeves focusing onscreen. So my answer to your question would be that I think John Wick — other than shooting people in the face — is like 80% Keanu.”
“I’d say 40%,” Reeves countered. “I definitely relate to his grief and to his never-give-up-ness and I like his sense of humor. I’m probably a little more verbose than John, but we’re also seeing that character in heightened circumstances. In ‘Chapter 2,’ you see that guy alone fucking screaming, right? You see the character’s vulnerability. I don’t think he’s just this stoic guy.” Only 40%? “I don’t know, man. It’s my flesh and blood, but it’s inspired and created by the character on the page.”
But “John Wick: Chapter 2” — which, in telling a story about a group of unseen badasses who operate in plain sight, could double as a metaphor for the stunt community that made it possible — is a film that implicitly recognizes how its protagonist might be reflected in its leading man. The jaw-dropping climactic scene, during which Wick kills roughly 37,000 people inside an intricately designed museum exhibition that functions like a mansion of mirrors (imagine the end of “The Lady From Shanghai” on steroids), refracts the semi-retired hitman into an infinite army of one.
It’s the perfect capper for a movie that has a ton to reveal but nothing to hide, a movie that could only exist because of how two men from very different worlds were able to see themselves in one another. It wasn’t until I shook hands with the director at the end of our conversation that I noticed something that had eluded me during the hour or so we had been sitting across from one another: Chad Stahelski looks absolutely nothing like Keanu Reeves.