John Wick: Chapter 2 begins as you might expect. Keanu Reeves, reprising his role as the film’s title character, is behind the wheel of a growling muscle car and looking to get back something that has been taken from him. But then we meet Abram (Peter Stormare), the uncle of the young dipshit who reawakened Wick’s murderous determination in the first film by killing his dog. Abram’s also the guy who unfortunately is now in possession of Wick’s prized ’69 Mustang. Abram knows the bogeyman is out to get him, but he plays his fear with the kind of deliberate campiness that you’d expect to find in something like 22 Jump Street, another movie in which Stormare appeared as the villain. This first sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film, cranking up the carnage, but undercutting it with not-so-subtle winks to the audience about its inherent ridiculousness.
After it was released in 2014, the original John Wick was enthusiastically received for its complex gun-fu action sequences and vulnerable hero. It prowled a nefarious underground populated by stylish thugs and veterans of prestige HBO dramas. John Wick: Chapter 2 now foregrounds the codes and mechanisms of the international assassin community that existed on the periphery of the first film. As director Chad Stahelski told MTV News, “We tried to make it tonal expansion, world expansion, action expansion. Not necessarily bigger or better, but just, ‘Let's get a little deeper into this.’”
The first John Wick was co-directed by Stahelski and David Leitch, two longtime veterans of the stunt and secondary unit worlds whose work with Reeves dates back to The Matrix and who came up under the tutelage of the Wachowskis. Because of guild regulations, only Stahelski was listed as the director of the first, but for the sequel he handled this position on his own. (Leitch is credited as one of the film’s producers again, and his solo directorial debut The Coldest City is due this summer.) Though the possibility for a third John Wick has obviously been set, Stahelski has also been attached to a reboot of the Highlander franchise. In preparation for John Wick: Chapter 2’s release this Friday, MTV News spoke with Stahelski about empathetic action movies and John Wick’s unlikely kryptonite.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
MTV News: Watching the new movie, I felt like there were two major changes in tone from the original. It was more brutal, and it was funnier. Where did those shifts come from?
Chad Stahelski: I'm an audience member too, man. I hate shitty sequels. When they asked me to do the sequel, I was pretty wary. We never anticipated doing a sequel. I was expecting to be washing cars after the first one, I shit you not.
We got what made [the original] different. We killed a puppy. It was empathetic. As much as we like to take credit for doing the longer takes and just doing what we try to do in every film, we couldn't have done it without Keanu. If we had anybody else in the role, they might've played it too straight, too hard, too tough, too one-sided. Keanu gives you the empathetic, “I'll cry over a puppy. I'll fight a girl in my boxer shorts. I'll be human. And then I'll go icy cold.”
When you go back to do the sequel — correct me if I'm wrong — I think you only get one puppy death in your directorial career. And I’m not going to do what I call the Taken mentality and go, “OK, you kidnapped the daughter, kidnapped the wife, kidnapped the...” I can't make the same movie again.
That leaves what I call the James Cameron thing. Ridley Scott did a great job on Alien, a sci-fi thriller. If you look at what Cameron did with Aliens, it's not the same movie. It's not even the same tone. I would like to take that kind of analogy and apply it to me, but I'm not by any means comparing myself to Ridley Scott or Cameron. That was the model I used. Look at Aliens: funnier, slightly more brutal. It was not so much the one-on-one psychological battle between Ripley and the alien [in the original].
From the very first frame [of Chapter 2], when the camera tilts down, you see Buster Keaton. We want you guys to know, we get it. We're very fortunate to make a sequel. We want you to enjoy a fun action movie.
Did you intend the first scene to be a satire of other revenge movies?
Stahelski: The one thing that I think myself and the other creators can say is there are no accidents in John Wick. We tried to give every visual cue we could. We're making fun of ourselves at this point. It's a revenge movie, but it's a little bit different. If you really look at the film, no one does anything wrong. There is no bad guy in the movie. Riccardo Scamarcio's character does nothing wrong; he comes and cashes in a favor that John gave to him. Ruby Rose does nothing wrong; she just protects her boss. Common does nothing wrong; he’s getting revenge. That's the way the world works. John's the only one that breaks the rules, so John technically is the instigator of his own karmic debt.
Why didn't you think the first film would be a success?
Stahelski: I think we're all kind of alike when you do your first film. You have great hopes, but you don't hope too much. When David [Leitch], Keanu, and I decided to do it, we knew it could be a very cookie cutter, by-the-numbers type of action movie. We all decided that if we're going to take time out from other careers, or if Keanu is going to put his faith into us, let's do something that we'd want to see. Let's do something different. We decided to go all in. If you're going to shoot 80 people in the head over a puppy, you better go all in.
We wanted to make a really wacky, mythological urban action movie. We wanted to prove you could make an action movie that looked good. But when we got done with it, it had this tone, we were very unapologetic. We were a little left-of-center of the Bournes and the Takens and everything that had been coming out before us. So it was a bit of shock when, critically, people started calling us more of an art house action film, or a fresh take on action films.
John Wick goes through so much physically in this movie: How do you make sure that he doesn’t come off like a superhero?
Stahelski: I'm a big Joseph Campbell fan, the mythology of a hero. The greatest characters, their greatest journey is always internal. There's the external bad guy plots and then there's the internal, “I want to hang up my guns.” Either case, it comes through suffering and it comes through imperfection.
With Keanu — whether it's called the Jackie Chan syndrome, or the Die Hard syndrome — we like to kick the shit out of him. We let you see the bruises. [John Wick] tries a lot of stuff, and some of it goes shitty. He'll crash a car. He misses. We’ll make him a bulletproof suit, but we’re going to beat the shit out of him. He’s still going to get hit, he gets punched in the face, a girl beats the snot out of him, Common beats the snot out of him, 20 bad guys beat the snot out of him, he gets hit by a car. Apparently his kryptonite is cars. How many times does John Wick get hit by a car? For some reason he just can’t hear them coming, I don’t know why.
That's kind of it. Character imperfection is the important thing to keep them from being superheroes. And hit them with a lot of cars.
What is the mood on your sets like?
Stahelski: It all comes, obviously, from the director. I'm a pretty serious guy. That's the way I am. The crew I have are guys I've known for 15, 20 years. My cinematographer and my production designer were two people that I hadn't met before this job, but I fell in love with them in the interviews. They're so professional.
Bad attitudes and all that stuff come because of time crunches and stress. If you prep so much and you have so much professionally going on in the prep phase and the design phase, by the time you get to set, you're creatively having fun. Think about you in your best creative moments, you're actually kind of a positive guy.
When you get those professionals on set, everyone will be super serious. It'll be, “OK, camera's up. Stunts rehearsals. Make sure no one gets hurt. Big safety meetings. OK, ready and action!” Ba-da-boom-boom ba-da-boom! Dead silence. Stunt coordinator goes, “Everybody good?” Thumbs up. You hear 50 people start laughing, “Holy shit, that worked.”
Whether you call it fun or excitement or laughter, there's a positive vibe when you pull it off. That's just professional satisfaction, and I think it keeps everybody happy.
In regard to stunts, what’s the negotiation like with actors in terms of figuring out what they’re comfortable doing and what you’re comfortable with them doing?
Stahelski: It's nothing that open-ended, really. When we meet a cast member for the first time — say, when we met Common — we talked just to get a feel. He was very interested in it. I gave him, like, “Look, the role is this: We're creating what John Wick would be like if he stayed in the business.” Common's like, “I'm down with it.” I'm like, “I know everybody says that — let me tell you what's involved. Everybody says they go to the gym, they're not afraid of heights, they do this, they do that. This is reality now, it's not the Hollywood two-step, it's not any B.S., this is the real deal. You're going to be trained like a stunt performer. We found out many years ago, the best way to fake being good is just to simply be good. So rather than teach people how to fake it, we actually try to develop a skill set that they are very versed in.” And Common said, “Well, what's involved?” And I said, “It's a fairly large commitment, a certain number of months, weeks, whatever we think the skill set needs, and it's going to be very intense training. Eat right, train right, and try to listen to your instructors.” Being a champ, he said yes.
So the first day we bring in our cast member, in this case Common, and we give him an assessment. Basic shoulder rolls, basic martial arts training. Can he do what we call “the dance”? Can he relate to another human being — not hurt the human being and not himself? See what his physical aptitude is — the ability to learn and process motions and then perform them while still acting. Common did an exceptional job in his first assessment. We got a good taste of how far we can take this guy with our many years of experience. As the weeks progress, the choreography changes. We want to see how good he is. We know the range of choreography we'd like to do, and can we get Common there? And we're happy to say that Common, after even six weeks, had surpassed what we originally thought the parameters were going to be. Obviously as his skill set gets better, the choreography improves.
The magic chart would be: What is the risk of what we're asking them to do? What is the proficiency of the individual we're asking to do it? What is the probability of reaching the mark of what we want to do, and the level of success that cuts down the risk?
In the first movie you had this concept that there's a whole underground New York we don't know about. The idea in this movie is that you're entirely surrounded by people who can and would willingly kill you. Were you trying to tap into a societal paranoia that you're feeling now?
Stahelski: The whole purpose of John Wick: Chapter 2 was to get us into John Wick 3 — the bridge, but do an interesting bridge. All the cool stuff we showed you in 1 and 2 — we call it the service industries [for assassins] — we wanted to take that away. John Wick was about showing you and giving; John Wick 2 was about taking everything away from him. So at the end, literally, I got the vibe from Donald Sutherland in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You don't know who's who. We want to show how big the world goes.
Whenever you deal with hidden worlds, it’s: Who's the vampire? Who's the immortal? Who's the assassin? It’s the Cold War thing, and I miss that. We wanted to instill a little of that.