Keanu Reeves disappointed some film fans with his combative roles in 47 Ronin (2013) and Man of Tai Chi (2013), in part because he looked out of place and miscast. That’s especially ironic when you consider that Reeves directed — and cast himself in — Man of Tai Chi. But like an old Jaws 2 trailer, Reeves is back, and this time it’s personal. His latest neo-hero actioner is titled John Wick. In it, Reeves returns to the mentality that transformed him into a martial arts hero with his “Neo” performance in The Matrix (1999). In John Wick, however, everything is personal, and that’s what makes the film and the fights work.
The plot: Wick, the most ruthless assassin in the history of Russian organized crime, pulls off an impossible feat of killing belligerence, earning himself the right to leave the mob. Then a young egotistical idiot at a gas station unwittingly draws Wick out of retirement, and the burning candle wick from hell unleashes a hurricane of vengeful fire.
As I mentioned in my blog about Jupiter Ascending, John Wick reunites Reeves with his stunt double Chad Stahelski from The Matrix. This time, however, Stahelski, who got his big break in the biz by being Reeves’ stunt double in Point Break (1991), serves as director.
The martial arts: Many folks know that in order for the members of The Matrix cast to do their own fights, each actor had to endure three months of intensive martial arts training. The clock was turned back to that era as Stahelski and his producing partner, former stuntman David Leitch, took active roles in developing a hybrid style for Reeves’ character in John Wick.
“We had to be able to change things as we went along, so it was essential for Keanu to be proficient in a variety of techniques,” Stahelski said. “He spent four solid months getting in shape, learning judo and jujitsu. We wanted to use practical grappling martial arts and mix in guns, so we created a new style of close-quarters combat.”
Although the resulting style is slightly akin to the “gun fu” that Christian Bale used in Equilibrium (2002), John Wick exhibits a creative simplicity that gives Reeves’ combat scenes a ferocious honesty. Each fight tells a story about the character’s past and present, the brutal choreography counterbalancing the effects of his grievous loss. The fights aren’t there for the filmmakers to say, “Look how cool we are!” but to reveal the emotional angst behind the character.
Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)
The production: Because Reeves could do most of his own fights and stunts, Stahelski didn’t have to worry about trying to hide the face of a double. That meant the battles could be filmed with longer takes and the crew wasn’t pressured to rely on fast cuts, long lens or the ubiquitous “earthquake cam.”
“Chad created longer, mise-en-scène scenarios instead of using just quick cuts, which I was really excited about,” Reeves said. “The choreography became very complicated. It’s bang, bang, bang and then throw someone, stab them — all sorts of fun stuff.”
(John Wick photos by David Lee/Lionsgate)