Violent, stressful and cathartic, the first film about former hitman John Wick was a surprise hit and, just as importantly, a lot of fun for star Keanu Reeves to make. So Wick, and Reeves, are back for John Wick: Chapter 2, a story that promises more fights, more bad guys, and a brand new dog.
by Ingrid Randoja
Keanu Reeves' career has been defined by contradictions. As a young actor he radiated an old soul, now as an older actor he embodies youth. He's a movie star despite a limited acting range, and he's a household name yet no one can tell you much about his personal life.
He's best known for playing Neo in the game-changing Matrix trilogy, a role that showcased his laconic coolness and martial-arts skills. But the last Matrix pic hit theatres in 2003 and since then Reeves has been content to keep busy on Hollywood's perimeter - appearing in small indie movies, directing his first film (the martial-arts movie Man of Tai Chi), and producing the documentary Side by Side, about Hollywood's move into digital filmmaking.
However, buried in that string of smaller films is 2014's low budget action film John Wick, directed by former stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. The script, originally written for an older actor, was brought to Reeves, who helped shape it to fit his persona. The story finds legendary hitman John Wick coming out of retirement to seek vengeance against the Russian mobster who killed his puppy (a gift from his late wife). Moviegoers responded well to Reeves' return to action-hero mode, turning the movie with a wee $20-million budget into a hit with an ardent following.
This month the 52-year-old actor returns as the killer in tight suits in John Wick: Chapter 2. When we last saw Wick he had wiped out a multitude of Russian gangsters (77 in total) and adopted a stray dog. Animal lovers need to know if this dog, unlike pup Daisy in the first film, will survive the sequel.
"Yeah, in the first film he walks away with this other hound, and the hound is part of the story of the second film, but don't worry, he'll be okay," says Reeves on the line from New York where he's presenting a preview of the sequel at the city's Comic Con. "I feel like we found a really organic way to tell the second story and not really repeat ourselves,", he continues. "John Wick has such an unique kind of hook, with the dog, and for the second film we couldn't say 'Now they've killed his other dog.' You want to find something organic."
So what can we expect?
"John Wick: Chapter 2 is a continuation of the story of John Wick's battle for independence. We kinda develop the action a little more, open up the world of the hotel, the Continental, run by Ian McShane. In this one, someone from John's past forces him to do something against his will and things go the way they usually go [laughs]."
Reeves is referring to John Wick's propensity for violence, distinguished by fast-paced-martial-arts moves and gunplay, all done without wires or camera tricks.
"I really enjoy John Wick's version of movie violence," notes Reeves. "I feel it's a combination of the real, because of the editing style there's not a lot of quick cutting so you are watching the action and hopefully it brings you into it. And at the same time it is highly stylized, just in terms of composition and what happens. It's a heightened reality."
At age 52, Reeves looks and moves like a much younger man, a testament to good genes and his dedication to keeping fit.
"There's the John Wick training, which is doing judo and jiujitsu and a lot of the fitness comes from the training," says the actor, "and of course there's diet. The role is very athletic so you are training like an athlete for it. I definitely don't have the same spring in my step, but I'm doing okay.".
Reeves was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to an English costume-designer mother and a Hawaiian-American father. His father left when Keanu was three and he moved with his mother to Sydney, New York and finally Toronto where he spent his childhood.
"Yeah, I had my formative years in Toronto," he says. "I was there from 1971 and left in 1985, basically all my schooling, but I dropped out of high school. I grew up in the Annex for the most part and it was a really great place for a kid to grow up. You could move around the city. Basically you wake up and go out to play and come home at night."
It was in Toronto he discovered his love of acting, appearing in a stage production of Damn Yankees when he was just nine. Roles on stage, in kids' TV shows and an NFB film followed until he made his movie debut playing a Quebecois goalie in the hockey pic Youngblood. Soon after, he packed his bags and drove to Los Angeles where his career revved up with films such as River's Edge, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Point Break and Speed.
It was the Matrix trilogy and its generous payday - Reeves negotiated a share of the film's profits - that gave the actor the financial freedom to chart his own path in Hollywood.
"Yeah, I don't mind [freedom]," he says, "but I'm not in a position where I can do anything I want. Once you finish working you're unemployed so you're always looking for the next project, developing stuff and taking meetings. That's the hustle."
One of his recent projects was writing the text for the photo book Shadows.
"Yeah, that was a really great experience. It was the second work I've done with artist Alexandra Grant after Ode to Happiness. She came to me with the idea, something about shadows, she took pictures of shadows and I wrote some text. It's about the nature of being. Check it out," he says in his typically laidback tone.
As for the future of John Wick, Reeves can see himself stepping back into the assassin's shoes for a third time, which would see Wick vying with cyber-hero Neo as his career-defining role.
"If people like the second film and we have the opportunity to do it again, I'd be happy to. I love playing the guy."
Morpheus and Neo are together again
Matrix co-stars Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves - who haven't been seen together on the big screen since 2003's The Matrix Revolutions - reunite this month in John Wick: Chapter 2.
Friends off-screen, the duo were both at a social event when Fishburne mentioned how much he enjoyed John Wick and asked whether John Wick director Chad Stahelski (who worked as the martial-arts stunt coordinator on the last two Matrix movies) could find him a role in the upcoming sequel. Stahelski jumped at the chance, and wrote an undisclosed part just for Fishburne. But don't expect Fishburne to dive into the fray. Asked by Collider.com how much action he sees, Fishburne responded, "A little bit, not a whole lot. Very, very little. Very little."