John Wick: Keanu Reeves in Top Form as Iconic Action Star

john_wick_posterWhen producer Basil Iwanyk of Thunder Road first read Derek Kolstad’s original screenplay for John Wick, he was immediately drawn to the contradictions and complications faced by its main character, a seemingly ordinary man who harbors an extraordinary secret.

“The tone of the script was subversive and really fun,” says Iwanyk. “It had a very clear emotional throughline and a great premise for an action movie. John Wick is the story of a man who loses his wife and has his home invaded, his car stolen and his dog killed. It’s a very human premise for a big action movie, something that could happen to anyone. To me, the holy grail of the action genre is to pair a very simple and very accessible premise like this with a hyper-real style, as we’ve done with this film.”

Kolstad found his inspiration in some of his favorite film-noir classics. “When I was a kid, I watched a lot of movies,” he explains. “My favorites always had a revenge motif. And I love the antihero. So I wanted to explore what would happen if the worst man in existence found salvation. Would it be true to his core? When the source of his salvation is ripped from him, what happens? Do the gates of Hades open?”

john_wick_10_reevesAnd so began the extraordinary journey of John Wick, the only man to ever walk away from a shadowy world of elite professional killers and survive, only to be sucked back in by fate.  “ John’s the kind of guy who walks into a room and has everything laid out in his mind like a chess game,” says Kolstad. “In the underworld, he’s a legend, and he’s been away long enough that the young up-and-comers have heard the name, but don’t necessarily believe all the stories.”

Given the character’s fabled career as an assassin, the filmmakers initially imagined an older actor in the role. “Instead, we decided to look for someone who is not literally older, but who has a seasoned history in the film world,” says Iwanyk. “Keanu Reeves is someone I’ve always wanted to work with.”

john_wick_11_reevesReeves’ impressive action resume includes the groundbreaking Matrix trilogy, two chapters of the blockbuster Speed franchise, and the daredevil adventure Point Break. But, for the past five years, Reeves has been devoting most of his time to his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi.  “So audiences haven’t seen much of him,” notes Iwanyk. “We thought that gave him a fresh and interesting edge. I think the audience will believe that this character has been retired for five years, because in some ways Keanu retired as an action star for a while.”

Reeves signed on to headline John Wick, working closely with the writer to refine the story. “Basil and Peter Lawson of Thunder Road brought the script to me with the idea that I would be a part of such a great collaboration,” the actor says. “We all agreed on the potential of the project. I love the role, but you want the whole story, the whole ensemble to come to life.”

john_wick_12_dafoeKolstad says there was no “star temperament” working with Reeves. “What I really like about Keanu is that he’s a normal, laidback guy,” he says. “He’s incredibly bright and such a hard worker. We spent as much time developing the other characters as we did his. He recognizes that the strength of the storyline lies in even the smallest details.”

Looking to infuse the film with innovative action sequences that would set it apart from the pack, Reeves contacted the filmmaking team of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, co-founders of 87Eleven, one of Hollywood’s most elite stunt groups. Reeves and Stahelski originally met on the set of The Matrix and Stahelski eventually became the actor’s stunt double. Together with longtime friend Leitch, Stahelski has worked on dozens of high-profile action films, and the pair are now two of the most in-demand second-unit directors in Hollywood.

Approached to design and film the blistering action scenes of John Wick, Stahelski surprised the producers by asking if he could pitch his ideas as director. After years at the top of his profession, he was ready to transition to the next level, with his longtime collaborator Leitch on hand to produce. When this screenplay landed on his desk, he knew it was time to grab the opportunity.

john_wick_9_reeves“It had gun fights, knife work, car chases and lots of hand-to-hand combat,” says Stahelski. “Dave and I talked about the potential to make a great graphic-novel-influenced action movie set in an almost mythical world. We pitched Keanu, Basil and the guys at Thunder Road the idea of John Wick as an urban legend, a thriller assassin movie with a realistic vibe and an otherworldly setting.”

Reeves was already confident the duo had the skill and creativity to stage John Wick’s groundbreaking action sequences better than anyone else. “Hearing Chad speak about the material and how he thought he could visually bring it to life was revelatory,” Reeves says. “He and Dave were interested in making each character unforgettable. They had given thought to the themes of the movie, the double life, the hyper-reality. They’ve been closely following the film since day one and trying to bring out all the emotion that is in this piece.”

As a filmmaking team, Stahelski and Leitch were the ideal choice for John Wick, according to Reeves. “Chad and Dave are experts in terms of this genre,” the actor notes. “The dialogue is hard-boiled but it’s also got the humor of graphic novels, the kind of amazingly original imagery and framing that we’ve come to associate with them. It’s a unique vision. I thought it was exciting and really cool to see all of these influences and experience and craft come together.”

john_wick_9_reevesIwanyk was immediately sold on Stahelski and Leitch’s approach to the film. “Their take for the movie and their visual presentation were so in line with what we were thinking the movie should be,” says the producer. “Everything from the color palette to the way in which the action should be staged and shot to the lookbook just felt right.”

One of Stahelski’s strengths as a fight choreographer and second-unit director has always been the ability to tell a story through action, says Reeves. “He always thinks about action in terms of narrative. He knows how to storyboard and pre-visualize the choreography; he has a lot of experience with the camera and with production issues. It’s clear that this is what he and Dave should be doing right now.”

Although Stahelski has worked with Reeves for more than a dozen years, this is their closest collaboration ever. “Keanu was very hands-on,” says the director. “He’s one of the hardest-working men we’ve ever come across. He knows everyone’s job. He can turn on a camera, he can shoot, he can edit, and he knows writing, character, directing and, obviously, performing. He’s always the first on set and the last to leave.”

john_wick_6_reevesAt the heart of John Wick is the age-old question: Can a man truly change? “Can you do bad things for a big part of your life and then become good?” asks Iwanyk. “At what point are you judged? At what point are you forgiven, and how do you forgive yourself? That’s a big part of who John Wick is. Is he a bad man who transformed himself, or is he a good man who has done some bad things?”

Even if he can change, there are always consequences in John’s world. “John Wick has done enough rough stuff in his life,” Iwanyk says. “He wasn’t able to walk away without

paying for that. No one is. Not John or the crime boss trying to go straight. And those two characters are on a collision course. They need to pay the piper before they move on.”

Audiences expecting to see a standard-issue action film will be surprised by the authentic emotional response they have to John Wick, says Iwanyk. “Keanu is so urgent and so passionate in his role. His emotion feeds into the velocity of the storytelling. Not a lot of action movies can communicate the kind of journey John goes through as he tries to heal the wounds he has suffered. That’s what I’m most proud of about the movie, and what I think people will really connect with.”

john_wick_3_reevesAdding to the excitement and anticipation for the film is the choice to release John Wick in immersive IMAX®, an epic format typically reserved for big-budget studio spectaculars.

“When you’re standing on the set of an independent movie, your only hope is that the movie will one day be released,” says producer Basil Iwanyk. “The fact that John Wick will now have an IMAX release is beyond all of our expectations. We are extremely excited. It’s a testament to the support we have received from Lionsgate.”

 

john_wick_2_reevesFor Stahelski and Leitch, the decision is a huge vote of confidence in their first feature as director and producer, respectively. “We are thrilled that IMAX has embraced the film,” says Stahelski. “It should be quite an experience!”

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