Empire (UK), June 2019

Bullet Time

by Alex Godfrey

Kicking off our 30-page summer action-movie spectacular, Keanu Reeves is back as cinema’s sharpest-suited sharpshooter in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Nobody’s quite sure how many people were killed in the original draft of John Wick, but it wasn’t 86. “It’s hard for me to remember the exact details,” says Keanu Reeves. Co-director Chad Stahelski says, “John Wick literally killed four people.” Writer Derek Kolstad thinks it was 11. “When we did the first table read,” he recalls “[producer] Basil Iwanyk chuckled and said, ‘Man, that’s a bodycount.’ And Keanu’s reaction as, ‘But we could do so much more!’ He’s the one who kept going, ‘Bigger, bigger, bigger’” So it got bigger. “It was kind of a hard sell,” says Stahelski, “to go to your producers, ‘Yeah, he’s gonna kill 86 people. Over a puppy.’”

Everything about the John Wick world has grown, from day one. Originating as a spec script by an unknown writer, it was an independently produced gamble that swung for the fences. Three films in and with a TV spin-off on the go, nobody involved can quite believe it. “It’s something you can’t even hope or dream for,” says Reeves, meeting Empire in Los Angeles, of how the films have been embraced. “Well, actually I’m wrong. You can hope and dream for that. But to have it happen is really rare. It’s great.”

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is the saga’s most ambitious instalment yet, featuring not only car fu and gun fu but dog fu. It boasts a bevy of A-listers, including Halle Berry, such a fan of the previous films that she practically insisted on being in it before the script was even written, and Hollywood royalty in the form of Anjelica Huston. The allure is especially impressive when you consider the series’ modest beginnings.

Kolstad wrote what would become John Wick in 2012, as a homage to the revenge films he grew up loving. He envisioned the character as a 70-something widower, retired for 30 years with an 18-year-old dog, given to him as a puppy by his dying wife. There was a hitman hangout hotel called The Continental, initially more like a warehouse; bad guys killed John’s dog; and John unleashed hell. Just a more modest flavour of hell.

Back then the film was called ‘Scorn’, John Wick was named after Kolstad’s grandfather, but “in name only”, assures Kolstad. ‘He’s a very gentle man. He’s giddy as hell to be named after a character like that, although he hasn’t seen the movies, nor will he. He’s a Midwestern man who doesn’t watch R-rated movies but he wishes me the best.” Iwanyk, at his company Thunder Road, bought it; he loved the character, but thought he should be younger.

“I was an executive at Warners during the Matrix years,” remembers Iwanyk. “I always loved Keanu. I felt he was one of the best action actors, and he seemed to have stopped making action movies.” In 2012, Reeves’ last big film had been 2008’s critically mauled The Day the Earth Stood Still, which had bombed, and he was directing his martial-arts paean Man Of Tai Chi.

“I felt that the audience’s perception was that he was retired from action, which mirrored the character of John Wick. So that line in the first movie, ‘I’m thinking I’m back’ – many people picked up on it as ‘Keanu Reeves is back to kick ass.’ That was always our intention, to get him back into that world. “

Reeves spent a few weeks reworking the script with Kolstad, compressing the timeline and making John more of an urban myth, then sent the rewrite to Chad Stahelski and co-director David Leitch in view of them designing the action. Both former kickboxers, for years they’d been working in Hollywood as stunt performers and choreographers, and second-unit directors. Reeves first met Stahelski in 1997; he was hired as Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix, and then on many other films.

Reeves wanted them for the action, but privately hoped they’d step up and pitch for John Wick to be their directorial debut. They did, proposing a less grounded film – wilder, prettier and otherworldly, influenced by graphic novels and Greek and Roman mythology. The Continental became grander, its denizens dealing in gold coins. Stahelski, Leitch, Reeves and Kolstad all threw in ideas, pushing each other to go further.

Regardless of everyone’s self-belief, pitching the script for studio financing was disheartening. “We were literally asked to leave, kicked out of the room,” says Stahelski of meetings. “There wasn’t a studio in town that wanted to do a Keanu Reeves movie where a puppy dies and he kills 80 people. So we shot the movie and tried to sell it again, and nobody wanted it.”

“Unfortunately while we were shooting John Wick, 47 Ronin came out and disappointed,” Iwanyk explains, referring to the box-office failure of Reeves’ 2013 action film. “And that really hurt. And then Man Of Tai Chi came out and didn’t make the commercial impact that everybody thought it would. So we wrapped, and Keanu Reeves just had two movies in the action genre that no-one really went to see. We screened the movie for every studio in town, and every single studio passed. We were all like, ‘We gave it a shot.’ We started moving on.”

"Dave Leitch and I said ‘Fuck it, we’re never gonna direct again, so let’s just get back to what we do,’” says Stahelski. “I took a second-unit job, Dave took a second-unit job. “At the 11th hour, tough, Lionsgate stepped in to provide film prints and advertising, and the film was released. It made $89 million from a $20 million budget, it made directorial stars of Stahelski and Leitch, and it made Reeves an action star again.

With Leitch off to direct Atomic Blonde, Stahelski went solo for the sequel and he, Reeves and Kolstad doubled down on the myth-making. Kolstad came up with the idea of a marker, blood oaths in the form of medallions, which “cemented the world”, he says; debt, both morally and karmically, would be a driving force of the series. Stahelski came up with the High Table, ”a criminal kingdom of layers of power and people beholding to people,” says Kolstad, “and suddenly it just felt more alive, hinting at a world within a world.”

With all this in place, ideas poured out. For instance: to honour a marker, John needed to kill crime lord Santino D’Antonio’s sister, Gianna. One day, during training, Reeves arrived and said, “I got an idea!” A dignified Gianna, he said, confronted by Wick, should slash her wrists in the bath. It led to an eerie, beautiful scene, with a spectacular overhead shot. “The angel wings of blood,” pronounces Reeves now, in awe of the aesthetic. “But it’s hard boiled, right? This character who knows they’re gonna die decides, ‘I’m gonna go out my own way’. But then John still with the obligation, following the rules, has to, you know.” Reeves chuckles, in thrall to the audacity of it all. “John Wick,” he says to himself. “John Wick.”

John Wick: Chapter 2 ended on a heartstopping cliffhanger – Reeves had the idea to leave John on the run after breaking the rules to kill D’Antonio in The Continental, up for grabs globally, a $14 million bounty on his head. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum begins just 45 minutes later, with the hour of safety that Ian McShane’s Continental boss Winston has given him nearly up. “It’s John getting the hell out of Dodge,” says Kolstad, describing the film as “John going to the ends of the Earth, going to the criminal underworld’s god himself, seeking some semblance of… not so much forgiveness, but his soul. What we love about this is the world becomes all the greater still, but more importantly it’s an intimate story about one man just wanting out, dude.”

The world had to become greater. “I mean, how many times am I gonna have John Wick get a new suit?” says Stahelski. The title betrays his mythological leanings. ‘Parabellum’ is lifted from the Latin phrase “Si vis pacem, para bellum” – which translates as “If you want peace, prepare for war” – tying in neatly with John’s bloody retirement mission. Ask Stahelski about it and you get lengthy monologues on his love of Latin, languages, subtitles, duality and Parabellum being the original name for a 9mm Luger. Also, it just sounds cool.

The world becomes particularly greater this time as secondary characters are fleshed out, particularly Winston: the film follows his trajectory as well as John’s. “Ian just shot for a couple of days on the first film,” says Kolstad, “and we all loved the character on paper, but what he brought to it was Ian McFuckinShane, you know? And with the third one, this is more than a man who runs a hotel. This is a man who is king of his kingdom, and the roots go deep. While John is very much a dark grey character – we wanted to make Winston all the greyer, if not black.” McShane is excited too. “Winston ain’t gonna go down without a fight, no matter what happens,’ he says. “The High Table is pissed off because he’s given John an extra hour to get out of town. But he’s not too pleased being told what to do. And at the same time he’s not too pleased with John.”

There are new characters too, brought in to finally eke out some of John’s backstory. Anjelica Huston plays ‘The Director’, “in essence the head of the head, to the point of the goddess of it all,” says Kolstad. “She is the criminal-underworld kingpin.” Stahelski wanted someone unpredictable, someone with gravitas and edge. They didn’t expect to get Huston, but after watching and enjoying the other films, she was in.

The Director runs the school that John attended as a kid, Huston tells us. “It’s basically a school for assassins. I feel kind of motherly towards him, but I don’t think I raised him with a whole lot of love. Well, maybe love, but not cotton wool.” In the script, it had said “in Russian” under some of Huston’s dialogue, but she’d paid it no mind; “No-one had given me the Russian,” she says. Arriving on set in New York two days before filming, she realized “in Russian” really did mean “in Russian”. “I was properly terrified,” she says. “I had a meeting with Chad and Keanu, who very sweetly came to my hotel and sat down with me. I was shaken. I’d never even studied the Russian accent. I don’t know if I cried in front of them but I was damn close to it.” A sympathetic Stahelski suggested she ditch the accent, but she wasn’t having that. “Classed the joint up, she did,” he says.

And then there is Sofia. After his escape from New York, John heads to Morocco to seek help from an old assassin colleague. Stahelski wanted someone without a slew of action credits, put word out before the script was written, and Halle Berry jumped at it. He warned her that the action was demanding. “The training is brutal, it is hardcore,” he said. “You’re gonna have to put off your life for five months before and go through tactical firearms, martial-arts training, choreography training, dog training,” he said. “When do we start?” she said. “I’m not sure of I hired her or she hired me,” says Stahelski.

“Yeah, I did a Jedi mind trick on him,” laughs Berry. “What I loved most about the movies is that everything was so real. Keanu did all the fights himself. I knew that he trained really hard, everyone trained really hard, and I just wanted to be a part of that world, where you get to do it for real and challenge yourself.” Not once, says Stahelski,”did she ever back down. Her thing was like, ‘Look, I’m at an age now where Hollywood sees me in a certain light, and I’m gonna prove them all wrong.’ And she proves everybody wrong, because she is fucking amazing in this.”

“I wanted to send a message that as women we can do whatever we wanna do,” says Berry. “We can do exactly what we wanna do if we have the heart and the will and the determination. I wanted to prove that.” Somewhere during her training, she cracked three ribs. She doesn’t know how; it just comes with the territory. She never complained. She just wanted to measure up, she says. “I didn’t wanna be the one in the scene where it was, ‘Ugh, Halle fucked up, CUT!’ It was really important to me to be on par with Keanu.”

Being on par with Keanu is no walk in the park. Reeves, who is more humble and gracious than Hollywood deserves, insists he doesn’t do stunts per se, but physical work. Stuntmen step in where necessary but, says Kolstad, “for the most part that’s Keanu on screen getting his ass handed to him.” In New York last year, Empire witnessed some of the ass-handing first hand. In a gorgeous glass set at the top of The Continental, we watched Reeves go toe to toe, head to head and everything else with a hooded henchman. Reeves’ double stepped in at the end to get kicked through a glass pane; that’s insurance for you. All of the rest, though, is the real deal.

Stahelski’s long takes and minimal cuts are because he wants us to see, and feel, that it’s all authentic. In late February, Empire visits the film’s LA edit suite to see some of the results, which are relentlessly intense, especially in a sequence that sees Reeves battling two of the martial-arts superstars from Gareth Evans’ The Raid films, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman. ‘We thought, ‘Fuck it, we’re not just doing regular stunt guys – we’re going to bring in the best fight guys around;’” says Stahelski. ‘Keanu had to step his game way up.”

And it hurt. “When you’re fighting for 14 hours a day – not fighting, but doing movie-fight choreography- it takes its toll,” admits Reeves. “But I like all that. It’s good to get some bruises and feel some… you know. Hee heeee!” The pain shows on screen; if John looks knackered, Keanu’s probably knackered. “That’s what Chad wants,” says Reeves. “He’s like, ‘You feelin’it? Okay, put it out there.’ He wants John to be limping and stiff, and when he gets up, like, ‘Ueerrghhh!’”

When things are pushed this far, there are, inevitably, some dicey moments. All involved stress that safety is paramount, but still; some things are unpredictable. Like, say, horses.

There is a scene in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum in which John, on the run in Brooklyn, gets himself on a horse and charges across town while fighting off motorcycle assailants. Every eventuality was accounted for, which was just as well. “You gotta remember it’s an animal,” says Stahelski. “It’s 1200lbs of unpredictability. We’ve trained Keanu to be excellent on a horse, we’re put safety cables on him, but it is a horse going at 30mph. We got in a full gallop, Keanu’s doing his trick riding move where he hangs off the side of the horse and he holds onto the neck. He’s on a safety line but he’s absolutely hanging off a horse, using his own strength to hold it while firing a gun at two guys on motorcycles. The horse did a little wiggle-wobble and Keanu comes off the horse.”

“I was going down,” recalls Reeves, somewhat gleefully. He fell, but the safety team in front caught him on the wire. “That would have been bad,” Reeves admits. “Hee heeee!” Stahelski just sounds relieved. “It’s a bit of a shock for everybody when you see your very expensive lead actor fall off a horse at 30mph. It does stop your heart. Until you realize, ‘Yes, our stunt coordinator Scott Rogers is one of the best riggers in the business.’ He developed a safety system that would do what it did- save lives.”

It’s a hell of a set-piece. Every scene is a set-piece. On a Wick film, if it isn’t so, it isn’t doing its job. One sequence Empire is shown takes place in an antique weapons warehouse, because… well, just because. “By chance he finds himself in a hallway full of knives,” deadpans editor Evan Schiff. As John takes on various goons, it is as brutal as it gets: axes and hatchets are thrown at an alarming rate. Watching, we squirm plenty. The film is rated R, and Stahelski stands by it all.

“The urge of Hollywood is to stay at PG-13 because you can market that to kids and adolescents,” he says. “But martial arts is meant to damage people, to hurt, to kill. We try not to do gory, but show what happens when you do this. Action and reaction.” Action being the operative word. Some people have told Stahelski these films have too much of the stuff. “I want action fatigue,” he says. “I want you to be done and go ‘Ooof! I was on a ride!’ I want the colours to overwhelm you. I want the action to overwhelm you. I want the weirdness to immerse you. I want you to be Alice and go down that rabbit hole and be a little fucked-up for a minute in this kaleidoscope of aesthetically pleasing things.” And that, in a paragraph, is John Wick.

John Wick has come a long way since Derek Kolstad wrote a modest revenge thriller about an old man names after his grandfather. “I’m feeling great, man,” he says. “This is the little movie that could, you know.” And there’s no end in sight, certainly if Parabellum does the business. ‘There’s no conclusion,” says Stahelski of the ongoing story. “There never will be to a John Wick movie, at least as long as I’m involved. What happens at the end of Parabellum? He lives for the next day, and all of the problems that day brings.“

So it’s not even a trilogy-closer, of sorts? “I don’t wanna give away the end!” says Reeves. But surely it’s the end of an arc. And life goes on. “Now you’re talkin’!” he says. “Now you’re talkin!”

Keanu Reeves is so back.


John Wick 3, John Wick, Man of Tai Chi, 47 Ronin, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Matrix, Bill & Ted Face the Music

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