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“People keep asking if I’m back — yeah, I’m thinking I’m back,” says Keanu Reeves as a retired assassin in John Wick. The revenge thriller puts the star back in action, literally, with Matrix trilogy stunt masters David Leitch and Chad Stahelski in their directorial debut.
“We do have a stunt shorthand,” Reeves, wearing a sleek navy blue suit with his untamed beard, told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s rainy New York City premiere on Monday night. “They had such a great ambition for the action in John Wick: wanting to do long takes, not a lot of cuts and have the action happen in front of you. And for me, I got to learn a lot of stuff I never knew before: judo, ju jitsu, … and drifting. It was kind of a fantasy role.”
Willem Dafoe, who plays a fellow assassin, said the style is reminiscent of John Woo’s signature gun fu combat. “The action is a real nice mix of martial arts and gunplay — you have the grace of martial arts, but then the bang of the gun,” he explained with elegant gestures at the Regal Union Square Stadium premiere, which was followed by an afterparty at the Chelsea hotspot The Monarch Room. “The choreography isn’t the same old, same old, or built around set pieces or a gag. It’s really integrated into the story. … These guys, they aren’t just stunt people, they’re filmmakers.”
Off-screen, Reeves is “this real cool philosophical dude,” according to John Leguizamo, who plays a friend of John’s. “We had great, deep conversations about everything from sustainability to how to romance the ladies — all that. We could talk about anything. I felt like we were old-soul friends for a long time.” Their scene together has them sharing a drink, which was supposed to be water. “We ended up drinking tequila — Keanu switched it up with real alcohol on me!”
Alfie Allen, who found it “invigorating” to play a Russian villain and shoot outside of Game of Thones’ Belfast set, added that Reeves “just sets an example — he’s first in, last out, and some of his stunts were full-on, he didn’t stop. Off-camera, he made me feel really at ease. Very, very down-to-earth, chilled-out dude.” And Bridget Moynahan hopes to work with Reeves again “in something we can both really sink our teeth into,” and said of her brief role as John’s late love, “I think a lot of people look at him as this strong, focused, action character, and it was nice to be able to bring out his softer side.”
While Stahelski admitted that the most difficult part of making his and Leitch’s directorial debut was balancing action with “the pace and tone — we’re good at doing that for a particular scene when doing action, but here, we had to take a through-line for the entire film,” the two are hoping to follow up John Wick with Rain, a 10-episode action series that would bring Reeves to the small screen for the first time.
“Action shouldn’t be its own entity, it should be very much part of the story,” Leitch told THR. “If you’re clever with the story and clever with the action, they can fuse together. We don’t see any real separation that the story stops, and then we just wow you with action. If it all fits and weaves together and helps you love the character, that’s what we want to do. … Demand more out of your action, as an audience.”
They chose Reeves to star as the Japanese-American assassin in the developing adaptation of Barry Eisler’s espionage novels because of his “unparalleled work ethic, patience, understanding, intelligence,” said Leitch, and his “natural ability — all the work ethic in the world doesn’t get you to do what he does,” said Stahelski. Added Leitch: “He’s a genetic freak! He’s super-talented, and that’s coming from stuntmen!”
While Reeves repeated to reporters that he still hasn’t gotten acquainted with Marvel’s Doctor Strange character (for which many think he’ll be a fit, following Joaquin Phoenix’s dropout), he noted of playing John Rain on television, “Hopefully we can do that.”
John Wick hits theaters Oct. 24.
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