“You stabbed the devil in the back. To him this isn’t vengeance, this is justice.”
The first installment had a disarmingly adorable dog and fight scenes of tactical fluidity, but the fanbase also embraced how Derek Kolstad’s script furnished the window-dressings of a cartoonish criminal underworld, and how the directors used the scantest traces of that mythology to support their heightened and hypersaturated aesthetic. Wick, we learned back in 2014, once belonged to an invisible syndicate of highly trained assassins for hire. They all know each other, they use their own currency, and they all stay at the same hotel (where violence is strictly forbidden). Their well-appointed world remains on its axis for one simple reason: Everyone obeys a set of titanium-clad rules. Rules that “Chapter Two” illustrates in great detail, and breaks with great pleasure.
“We weren’t going to over-plot it,” Stahelski explained. “John Wick wasn’t going to save the world, he wasn’t going to have kids, there wasn’t going to be some international agency looking for him.” The story might take him on a trip to Rome and wrap back around to expose the hilariously mundane network of killers that exist right beneath the bustle of New York City, but the title character is always in focus. “John Wick fucked himself over, and this movie is about him trying to pay off that karmic debt.”
“We wanted to give you a glimpse of a broader world,” Kolstad said, “but we had to maintain the fact that John had changed.” If the origin film had fun pointing out a curtain draped our view of New York City, “Chapter Two” takes a good look behind it. “There was the John of the first one, the Babayaga, the shattered man. And now there’s the John of the second movie. He’s not going to go back, he’s this new being. He’s found his salvation and he’s lost it. When we talk about further entries in the franchise, we always stay true to the notion of we never want to root against John. We want John to retire on that houseboat alone somewhere with his new dog. Does he deserve it? Maybe, maybe not. But we root for him.”
And Wick roots for everyone in return. “I totally recognized the pressure that Chad and Derek were under,” Reeves recalled, “so I felt like my job was to be the enthusiasm guy. I was like ‘Yeah, there’s second album syndrome. Yeah, there’s sequel pressure. But let’s just do it, guys, it’s gonna be great!’” He laughed. “I was the cheerleader. I trusted the vision.”
According to Stahelski, the biggest key to action-movie success lies with what you can’t see. “Ninety percent of it is just hiding stuff,” Stahelski argued. “Hiding the double, hiding the lights, hiding the wire, hiding the fuck-ups.” That ethos came into play during both of the biggest set pieces in “Chapter Two,” especially the blowout gunfight in the catacombs of Rome. The director, who insisted on months of meticulous prep (afforded by Reeves’ passion for the project), couldn’t figure out how to light the dim, cavernous space so that it could accommodate the wide shots that his balletic action style requires. Fortunately for Stahelski, cinematographer Dan Laustsen had an idea: “He was like ‘Fuck it, we’ll put the lights in the movie and it’ll be awesome.” So they did. And it was. Turning the subterranean maze into a nightclub complete with strobe lights and video projections, Laustsen provided his director with the conditions he needed to clearly show John Wick doing what John Wick does best.
“It’s much more about hiding than it is enhancing,” Stahelski said, underscoring the patient, long-take aesthetic that he imported from Yuen and several generations of Asian filmmakers whose stars were martial artists capable of the moves that Hollywood action movies had to obscure with shaky-cam and choppy cuts. “It’s all about seeing the guy.”
There are only so many guys in the Hollywood system who can be seen in the way that Stahelski’s cinema requires. Reeves is one of the very few. “I dare you to find another actor and his representation that’s going to go: ‘Yeah, take my guy for five months. We won’t charge any extra money. He’s not going to do his three jobs where he can make $10 million-$15 million,” Stahelski said. “He’s going to live in a gym, possibly hurt himself, just to do a movie that’s about a puppy dying. Also, it’s cool if you want him to fall in front of that puppy, look as wimpy as possible, and then get into a fight with a beautiful actress in his boxer shorts.’ There’s no way.” But with Reeves, that’s the only way. He gets it. He keeps it honest.
And that honesty shows up on screen, in the fight scenes (during which the 52-year-old actor can be seen tumbling around like a vintage Donnie Yen), but also in the moments where he’s called upon to show who John Wick really is; the idea that “it’s all about the guy” feels even more relevant when a gun’s not involved. Reeves has so perfected the stoic modern samurai that the character seems like a natural extension of his own, making it easy to forget that he’s acting at all.
Stahelski smiled when I asked him how much of John Wick was shaped by the man who plays him. “That samurai stuff… you know, Keanu is one of the politest motherfuckers. He has the right etiquette. He keeps a little distance but, as far as formalities go, he’s incredibly generous. He’s got that little austerity to him, which I really dig. When he’s sad, he’s fucking sad. When he’s happy, he is fucking happy. There’s very little wall, very little need for interpretation for him. He’s very stoic, but that’s because he’s internal. But if he smiles, it’s a genuine smile. And when he’s focused, that is Keanu Reeves focusing onscreen. So my answer to your question would be that I think John Wick — other than shooting people in the face — is like 80% Keanu.”
“I’d say 40%,” Reeves countered. “I definitely relate to his grief and to his never-give-up-ness and I like his sense of humor. I’m probably a little more verbose than John, but we’re also seeing that character in heightened circumstances. In ‘Chapter 2,’ you see that guy alone fucking screaming, right? You see the character’s vulnerability. I don’t think he’s just this stoic guy.” Only 40%? “I don’t know, man. It’s my flesh and blood, but it’s inspired and created by the character on the page.”
But “John Wick: Chapter 2” — which, in telling a story about a group of unseen badasses who operate in plain sight, could double as a metaphor for the stunt community that made it possible — is a film that implicitly recognizes how its protagonist might be reflected in its leading man. The jaw-dropping climactic scene, during which Wick kills roughly 37,000 people inside an intricately designed museum exhibition that functions like a mansion of mirrors (imagine the end of “The Lady From Shanghai” on steroids), refracts the semi-retired hitman into an infinite army of one.
It’s the perfect capper for a movie that has a ton to reveal but nothing to hide, a movie that could only exist because of how two men from very different worlds were able to see themselves in one another. It wasn’t until I shook hands with the director at the end of our conversation that I noticed something that had eluded me during the hour or so we had been sitting across from one another: Chad Stahelski looks absolutely nothing like Keanu Reeves.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” opens in theaters on Friday, February 10.