by Chris Hewitt
Not many heroes have nicknames like The Boogeyman. Or Baba Yaga. Yet, as Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski tell Empire, heroism isn’t always so simple.
According to the internet, which is never wrong, in the three movies in which he’s featured John Wick has killed 299 people. He has shot people. He has stabbed people. He has punched people. He has kicked people. He has killed people with cars, with horses, and even with a pencil. So Keanu Reeves, can we even consider the man once known as Jardani Jovonovich to be a hero?
“Ah”, laughs Reeves. “The old ‘anti-hero/hero’! When I think of the character, I think of his will, his fortitude, and his honour. And he’s trying to fight for an independence for his life, to a degree. And within the world, he’s just fighting bad guys. So yeah, I think he’s heroic. Is he someone that could be a role model for the kids? Maybe with a little curating.”
So that’s settled, then. John Wick is a hero. In fact, he may be one of the most engaging, and iconic, movie heroes to come along for quite some time. When he first appeared in 2014, it was easy enough to dismiss the character, and the movie, as the latest in a long line of Taken-inspired revenge thrillers. Instead, what Reeves, stunt-gurus-turned-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (who has since helmed the two sequels on his own) and writer Derek Kolstad constructed was a compelling, indefatigable, inscrutable assassin. Yet, according to Stahelski, the character was almost an accidental creation.
“We didn’t really know who John Wick was when we started,” he says. “That’s not to say we didn’t have a direction.” That direction involved looking in any number of directions for ways to fill in the character, who had been a much older man in Kolstad’s original script (then called ‘Scorn’). They looked to cinema, and the films of Sergio Leone (“The Man With No Name is definitely a hero with a dark side; not good, not bad, right in the middle,” says Stahelski) and Akira Kurosawa (“If you watch any of the samurai films, you realize it’s roughly the same character. There are cultural differences, but it’s got the same kind of vibe”). In fact, Stahelski sees John’s tailored suit as “his samurai armour”. The way he holds his gun is designed to mimic holding a sword.
Stahelski and Leitch then turned to mythology as a way of fleshing out the shadowy underworld in which Wick operates, with its emphasis on gold coins and hotels-for-hitmen. “I’ve always been a huge mythological fan,” says Stahelski. “And I don’t just mean Greek or Roman myths. We did a mythological version where everything was slightly hyper-real. We’ll do it like Dante’s descent into Hell.” And they had New York. “What city, more than New York, feels like an underworld? So we rewrote the script and layered it in terms of basic mythology. And Keanu Reeves became our Perseus, or whatever you want to call him.”
Plus, of course, they had their ace in the hole. “Keanu Reeves became our anchor,” says Stahelski. He and Leitch had worked with Reeves for years, but for their directorial debut, they brought him on board from the off, knowing that a man who created several iconic action heroes (Neo, Johnny Utah, Jack Traven, and some would even go to bat for John Constantine) would have great instincts when it came to creating another. “I don’t want to necessarily repeat myself, or bring in stuff I’ve done in the past, and be aware of that,” says Reeves. “But that’s part of the process. ‘I’ve done that, don’t do that.’”
Reeves found his inspiration for Wick from other areas. “It wasn’t like ‘Here’s my Clint Eastwood moment’, or “Here’s my Jack Nicholson.’ But I’ve been exposed to their art. You could look at Jim Thompson or Kurosawa. All of these influences are part of our lexicon.” He was deeply drawn to the character’s enormous reserves of willpower, pain, and grief. “But until you start playing it, you don’t know,” he says. “There’s a scene with Winston [Ian McShane] where John Wick goes to him and as he’s getting up he says to Winston, ‘It’s personal’. That wasn’t in a script, but in the feeling of it, it was like, ‘Okay, now I need to say it’s personal.’ And now that’s something that was fundamental for the character.”
All of that comes to a head in the film’s now famous scene where Wick, while tied to a chair and facing certain death, stares the film’s villain in the face and growls, “I’M THINKING I’M BACK!” It’s a line that obviously pertains to Wick’s strength of character, but also can be said to apply to Reeves, who has spent a number of years away from blockbusters and action, working on smaller movies. “None of us meant it to be meta,” laughs Stahelski. “It’s a great scene. It was about two pages longer, but the part that’s in the movie, Keanu wrote that. When you see those lines written down, you’re like, ‘What are you talking about, dude?’ But when you have Keanu screaming at the top of his lungs, you’re like, ‘Oh fuck, I get it.”
Reeves may be too modest to claim authorship I”I was just really getting a chance to express wonderful writing,” he says), but the scene is pivotal for him, too. “I got to go to some heights, which is always fun,” he adds. “And the emotion behind it, and the declaration, to feel that and to express that while John Wick is tied and bound and helpless, he’s just throwing it out, that was fun to play.” With two sequels under his belt, and another on the way (in which kill number 300 will almost certainly be confirmed), we’re thinking he’s right.