2014's "John Wick" followed the titular retired hitman (played by Keanu Reeves), as he dished out bone-crunching vengeance over the theft of his vintage car and the death of his beloved puppy. The movie delved into the world of assassins and delivered slick action moves, as well as epic gun showdowns.
Now, the GQ-tailored John Wick is back for another round in "John Wick: Chapter 2" -- only this time, he’s the one being hunted.
Director and stuntman Chad Stahelski, who helmed the sequel solo after directing the first film alongside David Leitch, recently spoke with CBR about building the assassins' universe, the new players in town and what makes a cool action sequence. Additionally, Stahelski discussed his take on the upcoming "Highlander" reboot, which he's on board to direct.
CBR: The original “John Wick” blew moviegoers away. How rewarding was it to get that kind of feedback and gain this diehard fan base?
Chad Stahelski: Shocking, actually. Dave [Leitch], Keanu Reeves and I made a movie we thought we wanted to see. I’m a big genre fan and, obviously, I’m coming from a martial arts background. It’s like anything really. You do something and you hope, because you would like to do it again and have a job. At the same time, it’s very flattering when people think you’ve done a good job or appreciate what you’ve done.
We tried to put a lot of details into it, so it’s not just an action movie. There’s our attention to detail about mythological story points and little hints that we are having fun. Just the fact, when we did the club scene in the first one, we put everyone in red shirts. We were making fun of the "Star Trek" guys. To have fans come out and see stuff like that, there’s a lot more of it in "John Wick 2." So, to actually be noticed and appreciated, yeah, it’s very flattering. It’s a little shocking, and we’re sure not quite used to it, but it’s fun. It makes you want to work harder on the next one to satisfy the same desire that people have for it.
Second installments come attached with high expectations. However, they often don’t deliver the goods. How did you go about trying to break that dreaded sequel curse?
I’m an audience member like you. You know how many times I’ve been let down by projects I really like? It’s a little tricky. Do you do the same movie over again or do you try and expand the world like “Aliens” did with James Cameron or even “Star Wars,” for that matter. We were like, “OK, if we are going to do this, we’re not going to try and over-plot it. We’re going to stay in our world, which is the hidden world of assassins. We’re not going so much bigger and better, but deeper into this world. We’re going to expand on Keanu Reeves. Keanu is the man, so let’s see Keanu driving and climbing and with guns.”
And we’re going into his story. We’re going to get a bigger cast and that’s going to deliver some more characters and show you through the characters’ eyes how big this world is. Stay with what the people love. Stay with what we love and try not to step on our own feet.
“John Wick” established this assassins’ world. How are you building on that mythology?
It’s showing a little bit of how big, and how international, the world is. We have the Continental Hotel in every city around the world. We tried to show what that looks like not only in New York, but in Rome, and who really runs that world and how big and deep it is compared to how small John really is in that world.
What is the clandestine High Table organization and how do they fit into the story?
In our mythological world, there’s a code. There’s a conduct of behavior that is expected from assassins. That’s how they keep in line. That’s how they keep hidden. The High Table is the governing body behind all our rules and codes of conduct and code of ethics.
"Chapter 2" introduces some fresh blood and sees the return of some familiar faces. What brings Winston (Ian McShane), Ares (Ruby Rose) and Cassian (Common) into John Wick’s orbit?
Winston is what I call the Oracle. He is the governing body. He’s the manager of the Continental Hotel in New York. Anything that happens through the service industry for that hotel is under his domain. He’s our narrator. He’s the guy who tells us what the rules are. He’s also a slight mentor to John Wick. Ares is the muscle behind our antagonist, Santino, played by Riccardo Scamarcio. She’s our enforcer/bodyguard for him. Cassian is who John Wick would have been if John had stayed in the business.
Ruby Rose is a rising action star and seems to be everywhere these days. Can you talk about casting her?
Even before, I didn’t know anything about “Resident Evil” or “xXx.” I liked her when she was on “Orange Is the New Black.” I thought she had an interesting look. I try to cast interesting character actors, from the smallest to the biggest roles. I think that helps paint a cool picture of our world. I thought she brought -- I don’t know if you want to call it feminine power -- but, she had a charisma about her. She had a strength. She’s athletic. She just had a presence. When she was in New York, I got to meet her and she had a vibe. She’s very confident. She’s very secure. At the same time, she has a different take on things. When she read the lines and got the part, she had a strength to it. It was quiet and subtle, as opposed to being over the top.
Some fans kept a kill counter for “John Wick.” How determined were you to top that total?
It was never a concern. When we first devised the action, it was obvious that because we wanted to the longer takes, and because of the scenario -- we do a very large action sequence in Roman catacombs -- because of the nature of the environment, we knew we were going to exceed our kill count on the first.
When you sit down to map out those action beats, what makes a kick-ass fight sequence?
For me, it’s tone and story. How do you show something about John Wick? In the first movie, he was an unstoppable force of nature. In “Chapter 2,” it’s someone coming after him. So, it’s a slightly different action design. Honestly, we want to show a different scene set. We took it to the next level. With that, you try to show the actor doing it. If you see Keanu Reeves doing it, you believe that John Wick can do it. It’s not about stunt doubles or tight, shaky cameras or hiding things. I want to see my character do something. When you see Steve McQueen riding a motorcycle in “The Great Escape,” you’re invested in it. You’re not doubting what’s going on. You’re relaxing. You’re sitting back and allowing the movie to happen instead of trying to figure out, “What the fuck am I watching? What’s going on? Is that a double?”
For a cool fight scene, for a cool action scene, I want you to see the characters doing the action. I want you to see the real talent behind it. I want you to see John Wick being great. I want you know why he’s such a deadly assassin. Then the magic comes with the choreography, the way it’s shot and the vibe we give you. If all that clicks, you have your favorite action sequence. You like Jackie Chan because it’s fucking Jackie Chan. There’s not a lot of hiding there.
The movie tagline “Chapter 2” infers this franchise is like a book. How many more “chapters” have you plotted out in your head?
In my head, we’re going to go for a Chapter 3 for sure. After that, it’s supply and demand. If the audience wants more, the world is rich enough to go for a couple more chapters for sure.
Next on your plate is a reinterpretation of the cult classic “Highlander.” Any updates? How are you approaching that source material? Is it a direct remake?
I love the original property. There’s something about it that really gets me. The trick, coming from a director and the conceptual standpoint, would be to hold true to the original, hold true to what everybody loves about the original and try not to over-plot it. I don’t want to over-complicate. I want to do the best we can do for audiences. The same way we were trying to reinvent the gunfight, we would really like to take sword fighting to a new place, and what it means to be an immortal for 500 years and learning those skills. I don’t think we’ve ever seen what that individual would be like in an action movie. What is it like for somebody to practice nothing but sword fighting? I want to see the immortal world, just like we saw the assassin’s world in “John Wick.” Hopefully, we can conceptualize something that people love without messing it up too badly.
"John Wick: Chapter 2" is now in theaters.