Media screenings are dreary affairs attended by soggy, haunted-looking cynics who hate themselves because life has become nothing more than an endless and terrible drag. At the screening of John Wick, these very same people cheered—cheered—as a remarkably well-preserved Keanu Reeves (50 years young!) shot, chopped, and kicked his way through the massively entertaining film’s highly stylized criminal underworld in revenge for the killing of his puppy. (Yes, you read that right.)
Reeves is delighted, if slightly incredulous, to hear about it.
“Oh, really?” he asks with a satisfied chuckle, calling the Georgia Straight from Toronto. “Well, you guys have seen a lot of movies, right?”
We have, but there was more than just critical satisfaction in the theatre that morning. After a few years away from studio pictures and the peak superstardom that defined his career between Speed and the Matrix trilogy, Reeves has shown up with the kind of role in the kind of film—opening Friday (October 24)—that usually signals a decisive return from the wilderness. In short, there was a lot of goodwill for the actor wafting its way toward the screen. He seems almost embarrassed by the very idea.
“Um, I dunno, I hope you’re right!” he says, laughing again. “I mean, it sounds good! For me, personally, yeah, it’s something that I’ve been hearing. It wasn’t, certainly, something that I considered going into the project a year and a half ago. But I really felt like the script was special, and the character, and I got to work with some really great filmmakers and cast. This is definitely one of the ones that I really loved.”
This is the key, of course. Reeves made his bones in Hollywood a long time ago. The past few years have seen the actor indulging his own interests behind the camera as both producer (the film lover’s doc Side by Side) and director (the martial-arts actioner Man of Tai Chi). He took an enhanced role in John Wick, too. After helping Derek Kolstad polish the film’s mayhem-filled script, Reeves was instrumental in bringing in veteran stunt coordinators David Leitch and Chad Stahelski to direct.
“Once they came onboard, I knew we had to do something special with the action, and I think we delivered on that,” Reeves says. “And then the way that they approached dealing with the script and the characters, I mean, we only have to look at the cast they were able to put together: Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo. Some wonderful actors, and they were drawn to the script, and they were drawn by Chad and Dave and their vision for the film. And I think even their work with the cinematographer, Jonathan Sela—there’s a cohesiveness to the movie and a confidence, but it’s also fun, it’s playful, it wants to be a good movie, it wants to take you on this journey. I love that you’re introduced to this world where everyone has a mysterious past, and they take you into that world in a really organic way. It’s seductive! I mean, I wanna be in that hotel! I wanna be in that world!”
It’s a hell of a debut for the first-time directors. Besides coaxing a performance from their leading man that embodies the gravity of the character while allowing Reeves to wink at the audience, Leitch and Stahelski have done what many genre fans have wanted for a long time: they’ve made an American film that observes the superior action aesthetics of Hong Kong cinema’s golden period. “Yeah, long takes and not as much intercutting, so you really do have the feeling that you’re watching it happen in front of you,” Reeves says. It’s a self-conscious throwback to all those “soulful hit man” flicks we saw in the ’90s, but better.
Meanwhile, Reeves and his team rolled a lot of their own fanboy inclinations into this turbocharged pulp. “I certainly remember seeing early John Woo, going, ‘What is that? That is awesome!’ And then early samurai films, and you could go into Clint Eastwood’s work, Mad Max,” he says. “The sweater John Wick wears is definitely an homage to Steve McQueen.
“It’s interesting, they almost reverse-engineered or synthesized it, in a way. I mean, Chad spoke a lot about [Steven] Spielberg’s lensing and editing. I knew that they wanted to infuse a bit of the graphic-novel sensibility, Frank Miller’s work, definitely Hong Kong action, definitely Italian, and then in the text, you know, they were really interested in Greek myths in terms of the underworld, and dealing with the gold coins, dealing with causality, and action and consequence, and trying to run away from a past that you perhaps inherited but you’re trying to change your ways but then it comes back to haunt you—that was all goin’ on!”
Reeves’s exhilarated description of its constituent elements is every bit as breathless as the movie itself. John Wick for the win! “That’s a good meal!” he bellows down the phone.