“Somebody PLEASE get this man a gun!”
Stahelski is exactly who you’d want him to be. A solid, square-jawed 48-year-old whose eyes sparkle with an immutable sense of mischief, he’s the kind of guy who invites you to go drinking before he even knows your name. (“You’re gonna be in Berlin next week, too? Give me a call, we’ll hit the town with Keanu!”) He could have been a movie star if he hadn’t been so good at standing in for them. He carries himself with the ease of someone who doesn’t need to announce that he’s the toughest motherfucker in the room — it takes a genuine badass to look that relaxed, to sink into a hotel chair like it’s a bubblebath — and even at the end of a long day, he fidgeted with the childlike joy of a guy who’s still genuinely excited by his own life.
I was wondering if all stuntmen were so serene, if it was a job requirement when you get shot at, set on fire, and otherwise stare death in the face on a daily basis, when Stahelski said: “I’m so fucking nervous!”
Oh. Wait, what?
“Doing a sequel? I’m shitting my pants.”
Much like its namesake, the first “John Wick” was deadly in large part because nobody saw it coming. It isn’t easy to independently finance a full-bodied action extravaganza at bargain-basement prices, but working on that scale buys you the one thing that major studios can seldom afford: The element of surprise. Of course, Stahelski was just as surprised as the rest of us. He laughed as he reflected on the original film’s fateful Fantastic Fest premiere: “We hadn’t done any test screenings because we didn’t have any money, and we couldn’t walk out of the theater because they stuck us in the middle. We knew that we had something good, we just didn’t think that anybody was going to like it. So when the crowd went mental we were just like… ‘Really?’ The whole thing far, far exceeded my expectations.”
“I really liked the first film, and had an amazing time making it,” said Reeves with the bluntness of a movie star who would tell you if he didn’t. “It was received okay, but I didn’t start to feel it on the street until it got a second life on a cable and pay-per-view. That’s when people started coming up to me and saying: ‘Nice to see you, Mr. Wick.’”
I’m not sure I recognized that there was a “John Wick voice” until I heard Reeves switch to it on the fly, but the stark contrast between the actor’s natural baritone and his character’s terse growl is a testament to how perfectly he’s fused the action hero to his screen persona. “It’s been really great to feel the enthusiasm for the second one, even from my friends. They’re all like, ‘Can’t wait for Wick!’ That doesn’t happen all the time.”
It can be terrifying when it does, not that Stahelski lacked for confidence. “The first time around, we didn’t quite know who John was,” the director confessed, sitting up in his seat. “The second time, we knew what tone we wanted; we knew where we wanted the action to go. We had some money, and we had my crew — all the people I’d been working with for the last 10 years — so I knew I’d stay on schedule. I knew I had the training. I knew that I could craft a two-hour film that would look great, sound great, have great action, and go all over the world. No fear, no fucking problem.”
This time, however, the issue wasn’t making a good movie; it was meeting expectations. “It’s flattering when people like what you’ve put out,” he reasoned, “it’s unnerving for a little bit, but you grow used to it. But when you feel this weird bond between what you’ve done and everyone who liked it, it’s petrifying to go back in — to jump back in without tripping over yourself. It’s all about being original and doing something new. If you do it well, you get high-fived. If you come just a little bit short, the penalty is heavy.”
So Stahelski watched every action sequel out there. He watched every chintzy installment of the “Taken” saga, and all of Jason Bourne’s increasingly chaotic trips down memory lane (presumably including that inexplicable Jeremy Renner spinoff). Judging by the self-administered homework he listed for me, it sounds like he paid special attention to the dumbest examples, eager to avoid repeating their mistakes.
It takes a lot to make a guy like him nervous, but he was. He still is. The reviews had yet to come out when we met, and Stahelski sparred with my sincere enthusiasm for his sequel like he was checking for weaknesses. “What was your favorite part?” he asked, catching me between sips. I don’t think he was looking for an ego stroke so much as he was trying to confirm that I had a favorite.
I do. It’s a ruefully funny bit that involves Wick — and a rival assassin played by Common — using their silencers to discreetly exchange bullets in a very public place. It’s the kind of scene that could only make sense in the John Wick Cinematic Universe, epitomizing the clever silliness with which “Chapter Two” leverages the first film in order to create a follow that feels more like a rabbit hole than an expansion pack.
Stahelski wouldn’t have had it any other way. When I mentioned that his new film has an “The Empire Strikes Back” vibe, he quickly countered that he aspired to a different ’80s classic. “I loved what James Cameron did in ‘Aliens,’” he said. “Ridley Scott is a hard act to follow, but Cameron did what Captain Kirk would’ve done: He changed the situation, he showed you the fucking shark. He went deeper into that world, and so we followed John deeper into ours.”