“John Wick” director Chad Stahelski was 30 years old when he heard the six magical words that changed his life forever: “Hey, you look like Keanu Reeves.”
For most of us, that would be a flattering compliment; for Stahelski, a stuntman and former kickboxer who got his start doubling for Brandon Lee after the actor was killed in a freak accident on “The Crow,” it was a call to action. “I was working on a show called ‘The Pretender,’” he recalled over a cup of coffee in the swank foyer of TriBeCa’s Greenwich Hotel, “and my boss noticed the resemblance. He said ‘You do all that martial arts stuff, right? They’re having an audition for something down in Burbank. Why don’t you go check it out after you’re done with this.”
Stahelski will never forget what happened next, even though it’s a miracle he can remember it at all. “I got hit by a car [on the show],” he shrugged. “Cracked my head, knocked myself silly.” He paused for a sip. “I was getting hit by a car that day — the problem was that the shoot was running late.” (For most people, the worst part about getting flattened by a car is being flattened by a car. For Chad Stahelski, the worst part is the inconvenience.)
“We wrapped at 1pm, and I’ve got to be on the other side of town by 2pm,” he said. “My head’s still bleeding, my jeans are ripped, and I can’t remember my own name. But I make it to this big warehouse and I step inside. The first thing I see is Keanu, drenched in sweat and wearing a neck brace, a team of five kung-fu guys coming at him.” That’s when they noticed the observer. “‘Pick up the staff,’” legendary Hong Kong choreographer Yuen Woo-ping instructed him. And so he did. “They beat the shit out of me for the next hour and a half,” Stahelski grinned with reverent machismo. “I was like, ‘Holy shit … what did I just walk into?’”
He’d just walked into “The Matrix.” But more than that, he’d also walked into the most meaningful artistic collaboration of his career. Matching up with Reeves gave Stahelski the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an epochal action franchise, while meeting the Wachowskis and producer Joel Silver allowed him to partner with powerful filmmakers who recognized the vision and control that he displayed during fight scenes. They gave him a chance to shoot second and third unit, which led to gigs coordinating stunts on mega-projects like “300” and “The Expendables,” and pitching in behind the camera whenever he could. Stahelski helped bring the elegance of martial arts into action movies previously defined by stage combat and steroidal brawn, eventually teaming up with a stunt pro named David Leitch to create 87Eleven Action Design. Their company’s slogan: “Kicking ass never looked so good.”
So when it came time for Reeves to helm his bruising directorial debut, “Man of Tai Chi,” he knew exactly who to call. And when Reeves received the script for a movie called “John Wick,” he knew exactly to whom he should send it.
“Originally I was thinking they’d just shoot the action,” Reeves told me over the phone, “but I was also kind of hoping they would want to direct it.” They did. “We’d been hit by enough cars,” Stahelski said. “Dave and I didn’t want to lose our stunt background, but we wanted to take that action and go somewhere with it.”
And so, 16 years after Chad Stahelski first doubled for Keanu Reeves, he got the chance to direct him. The hyper-violent saga of a retired and recently widowed assassin who launches into a rampage of revenge when a group of ill-advised mobsters kill his puppy, “John Wick” slipped into theaters on October 24, 2014 and grew to become a slow-burning, word-of-mouth sensation, grossing $86 million worldwide against a $20 million budget.
Making a modestly budgeted (and extremely profitable) action movie about a man avenging his butchered beagle… well, it turns out that was the easy part. The hard part was doing it twice.