When in Rome
by Jordan Farley
They stole his car, they killed his dog, but now cinema’s deadliest assassin is fighting for something even more important: his life. Keanu Reeves, director Chad Stahelski and the cast of JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 join Total Film to discuss the ballistic sequel redefining Hollywood action.
Buried amidst the hard-boiled dialogue that characterized John Wick, Keanu Reeves’ revenge-fuelled career comeback, was a prophetic warning from Winston – the charismatic owner of hotel for hired killers, the Continental: “You dip so much as a pinky back into this pond, you may well find something reaches out, and drags you back into its depths.” Well, by head-shotting his way through New York’s Russian crime syndicate, making a restaurant full of “dinner reservations” in the process, the man you send to kill the fuckin’ Boogeyman didn’t so much dip his pinky into the pond as lob an entire grenade belt in. So yeah, we’re thinking he’s back. And no one is happier about it than Keanu Reeves.
“I was really excited about getting to play the role again. So excited,” Reeves grins. Sitting opposite Total Film in a lavish LA hotel, the star is decked in a black suit, black t-shirt and a pair of white-soled running shoes.
His hair wild and face covered in stubble that has sprouted in recognizable contours, he looks positively Wick-ian. That is, if world-class assassins had dress down Friday. “Creatively, we tried to do something very organic. The first one was about the consequence of your actions, right? Now it’s: what are the consequences of John Wick’s actions?”
Action and consequences are at the heart of John Wick’s story, on and off the screen. Filmed independently with money from foreign sales, Wick was an extraordinary risk. Reeves hadn’t headlined a hit in a decade, and was coming off the back of the biggest flop of his career in 47 Ronin; while Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, though acclaimed second-unit directors, had never helmed a feature film. The result, improbably, was the most distinctive Hollywood action movie in years. But it could have been very differently.
“Originally it was more of a standard action movie: one car chase, two fight scenes and a gun fight,” says Stahelski, who flew solo for Chapter 2 while Leitch directed Charlize Theron actioner The Coldest City. Working with writer Derek Kolstad, the group developed a hyper-real assassin underworld – all crypto currencies, code words and honour among thieves – that acted as a foundation for the series’ stylized action, and helped Wick stand out. “I was big into Greek mythology in college, so we wanted to do a modern-day myth. Something Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone would make,” Stahelski continues. “But because of the budget and time we didn’t have enough resources to show everything we had to show. For number two we want to show a different kind of world.”
Different and a whole lot bigger. Picking up “really soon after” the first film’s triumphant ending, which saw a battered and bloody ‘Baba Yaga’ walk off into the sunset, new puppy by his side, Wick’s re-emergence has unexpected repercussions as a former acquaintance seizes the opportunity to cash in a ‘Marker”, a blood oath that sends Wick to Rome and puts a new target in his crosshairs. Standing in his way: a small army of highly trained assassins. “Rome fit perfectly”, Reeves says, raving about the series’ shift in location. “There’s so many underworlds in Rome. Chad was fascinated by the Church and the ‘assassini’ and the layers that could bring into it.”
“Hopefully it makes the movie feel larger,” adds Stahelski, who also saw Rome’s civility as a perfect fit for this film’s panache. “Every city has a Continental [hotel]. It shows you there’s a bigger picture than John’s little world – but still, he’s made a dent in it.” Ian McShane’s Winston once again serves as the face of the Continental, this time across two continents. “What you find out is he’s more on top of it all,” McShane says in his distinctly authoritative drawl. “You can’t fuck about in his hotel. You’re welcome to stay and spend your gold coin- but don’t upset the rules. Well, of course, the rules are going to be upset. There’s a pretty spectacular ending, which was a lot of fun to be part of.”
Spectacle sat comfortably alongside disarmingly potent emotion in the first film, which reduced hardened cynics to blubbering infants in minutes as Wick buried his wife and puppy. Stahelski was keen for the sequel to retain a compelling emotional hook, though mercifully, he’s quick to reassure that “no puppies were harmed in the making of the movie.” Instead, Chapter 2 sees John Wick fighting for the life of the good man he once was.
“The second film explores that dichotomy some more,” says Reeves, who was drawn to the duality of the title character. “There’s John the husband, the man who wants to stop being a hitman. And there’s John Wick, the legendary assassin. In the second film John Wick, in a way, fights for John.”
And if there’s a thing that John Wick knows, it’s fighting. More specifically, gun-fu. Stahelski and Leitch developed the über-cool blend of martial arts and close-quarters gunplay after 25 years in the industry (one of Stahelski’s early gigs: Reeves’ stunt double on The Matrix). The results were electric, with punch ups superior to anything this side of The Raid. Stahelski, naturally, is upping his game for the sequel with standout sequences set in the catacombs beneath Rome and a dazzling mirrored room that homages Enter the Dragon. But what makes John Wick’s fights special? “ It’s Keanu Reeves doing the action,” Stahelski reasons. “We took him to a different level with the firearm training. We took him to one of the best jujutsu coaches in the world, to two of the best judo people in the world. We show you a few things that hopefully you haven’t seen before. And instead of the car chases, we have car-fu.”
Hold the phone, car-fu? That’s right, this time the automobiles are getting in on the offensive. “It was Darrin Prescott, out second-unit director, who coined the term. He was like, ‘Forget all that karate stuff. Just do car-fu.’ And I thought, ‘That’s a good idea!’” Stahelski laughs. “On the first movie we could only afford four cars, so we just had them bumping into each other. Here we’re using the vehicle as an offensive weapon. John Wick never runs, he sets you up and smashes into you.”
No stranger to groundbreaking action, Reeves has a different perspective on what makes Stahelski’s style stand out. “With me it’s never second unit, so their imprint is always there,” Reeves explains. “The way they shoot action, the way it’s edited, the way you have longer takes and know the space – it’s like you’re right there with the guy. It’s not generic.” Also not generic: Wick gets the stuffing kicked out of him. “Chad Stahelski takes great pleasure in beating the crap out of John Wick!” laughs Reeves, who got hit by a car three times and thrown through two windows for the sequel. “But when he puts the suit on he’s possessed by this indomitable will. He keeps fighting for his life.”
Dishing out the punishment are some “crazy” new characters, including rival assassins Ares (Ruby Rose), who communicates using sign language, and Cassian – played by rapper-turned-actor Common. “He’s surely one of the great assassins,” claims Common, who previously worked with Reeves on 2008’s Street Kings. “But he’s not the enemy of John Wick. It’s that thing where somebody crosses your path, so you have to take care of business.”
Most of the first film’s colourful supporting cast return, including John Leguizamo’s mechanic Aurelio and Lance Reddick’s concierge Charon, but there’s an even more enticing new addition: Laurence Fishburne – Morpheus and Neo reunited.
Operating outside the code, Fishburne’s Bowery King lives rough on the streets of New York, the perfect disguise for an expert killer.
“We are those who are seldom seen. We are omnipresent. We are always there, but you just don’t notice us,” Fishburne says, talking to TF during a break from filming Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying. “The Bowery King and Wick had an adversarial relationship at one point, so you’re not really sure whether they’ve buried the hatchet when they meet.”
Fishburne remained close friends with Reeves after The Matrix, but watched the first film as a punter. “I enjoyed it so much that the next time I saw Keanu, I was like ‘Hey man, if you guys are getting ready to do another one, I’d really love to come play with you.’” Fishburne won’t be drawn on whether his kung-fu chops came in handy for his brief appearance, but teases, “They gave me something that matches my abilities and my size, and it absolutely makes sense in terms of our characters’ relationship.”
Fishburne and the rest of the cast have nothing but praise for Reeves’ dedication to the physically grueling role, a dedication matched only by Stahelski. And though Stahelski’s going alone on Chapter 2, the first film’s co-director, David Leitch (recently announced as Tim Miller’s replacement on Deadpool 2), has been heavily involved in the sequel. “I’ve seen The Coldest City, I’ve helped him out with notes. And he’s seen this and helped me out with notes,” Stahelski says. “We run a whole company [87 Eleven Action Design] together. We see each other too much as it is. I swear to God, he’s like my wife.”
Just like his work wife, Stahelski has a high profile follow-up gig in development: the Highlander reboot. But he’s far from finished with Wick. Before committing to a sequel, Stahelski considered a prequel. “We have an idea,” the director reveals. “We just didn’t think it was the time. And it might not be right for a film, maybe it’s another medium like TV.” There’s also the small matter of John Wick: Chapter 3. “Number two is, generally speaking, a cliffhanger,” Stahelski offers. “So we’d very much like to continue. We’ve got a really good story to tell.” Familiar with long-delayed threequels thanks to Bill And Ted, Reeves is conservative on Chapter 3, but again it all comes down to consequences. “Where we leave off in Chapter 2 I found satisfying,” Reeves pauses. “John is fucked. The consequences of John Wick fighting for John, he’s properly, you know, fucked. So I’d like to see how he could fight for his life again.”
Q & A: Rose & Thorn
Total Film meets model-turned-actor Ruby Rose
Who is Ares?
Ares is the female John Wick in many ways. She is highly trained in hand-to-hand combat, guns, the whole of gamut of what it takes to be ahead in the assassin world. I loved the first film so much. The stunts were unbelievable, and the long one-shot takes. I just thought, “My goodness - who’s behind all of this?”
How much training was involved?
When they asked me to be a part of it, I was like, “Thank God I’ve got a history in martial arts and boxing.” Because of the way they shoot the film, it’s really integral the actors are the ones behind the stunts. We had some training to get an idea of what we would be doing and then it was straight into it.
How did you react when Chad explained your character would speak using sign language?
I reacted horribly [laughs] But I love that about Chad, he just does not care. It’s really important to me to acknowledge that Ares is not deaf. It’s a way to communicate to her team, so if we are in close proximity to John Wick there’s no trouble speaking. I get to say some very… interesting things in sign language!
Did you enjoy wearing a suit?
I loved the fact that she didn’t need to wear make-up or have sexy outfits. She’s very confident in her training, very focused and deadly. She probably doesn’t even know how to use her sexuality. There’s more male energy because of that. And she’s working in suits because they’re tactical with a lot of benefits for an assassin.
What was it like to film the sequence in the mirror room?
Those scenes between Keanu and I were so fun to shoot, but I don’t think they were very fun for the camera operator or the director! Trying to hide the camera in a mirrored room is impossible. But it’s great because you can’t put a stunt person in either.
You’ve got John Wick, xXx and Resident Evil releasing weeks apart, does it feel like an exciting time for you?
Oh my God, yeah, it’s beyond exciting. It’s absolutely more than I could have dreamed of achieving. Each of the roles are very strong women, but they’re all very different. I try to live in the moment and remember how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing right now – which is filming my fourth film [Meg]. It’s great to work with such amazing people.
WHAT THE FU?
Following gun-fu and car-fu, here’s five things for John Wick to ‘fu’ up in Chapter 3….
A no-brainer. Wick already has a close bond with his pup, so it’s about time. John’s canine companion got in on the action. Signature move: after disarming a perp, the pooch disables his target by clamping down on the crown jewels, opening them up for a quick headshot.
John Wick’s ‘tactical’ tailoring is already the discerning assassin’s uniform of choice, but why stop with Kevlar lining and weapon holsters up the wazoo? How about a button concealing a carbon fibre wire, for sneaky garotting? Or a secret sandwich pocket? Because you never know when you might need an energy boost.
Jason Bourne dropped the ball when it came to offensive uses of household objects, but Wick could pick up the slack. The obvious candidate: the humble stapler, which could be used to deliver death by 1000 cuts, a swift swipe to the jugular and everything in-between. Bonus: can be dual-wielded with a pistol.
John Wick is a man of action, but at some point the old dog has to step into the digital age. After all, a few minutes with Google can throw up valuable information that’s useful for taking down an indiscreet target. Alternatively, co-ordinate a Twitter witch hunt and watch the irate masses do Wick’s work for him.
In the immortal words of Frost from Aliens, “What the hell are we supposed to use, man, harsh language?” Well, yes! Armed with a vocabulary that can kill at 30 paces, Wick literally talks his targets to death with a lethal combination of syllables. Wick the merciless.