How Keanu Reeves' stunt double became 'John Wick's' action auteur

Jen Yamato, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES — For four films and counting, Keanu Reeves has fought, shot and slashed his way to hell and back again as tormented hit man John Wick, a boogeyman with a sky-high body count and a soft spot for puppies in an underworld of killers.

And for nearly 10 years, the man behind Reeves building the bespoke world of "John Wick" has been Chad Stahelski, his longtime stunt double, who co-directed the 2014 original with David Leitch before solo-helming sequels "John Wick: Chapter 2" (2017), "John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum" (2019) and "John Wick: Chapter 4," out this week.

For Stahelski, now one of Hollywood's top action directors, it's been a decade spent not just carving out a stylish new era in American action cinema, but also establishing his own creative voice. "I've used the 'John Wicks' as a comfort zone to really explore who I am," Stahelski told the L.A. Times. "The first two movies are love letters. The third one is the first time I asked, 'What's me?' And the fourth is probably the closest I've gotten so far."

In "John Wick 4," Stahelski deepens the bench with a murderer's row of action stars (Donnie Yen, Hiroyuki Sanada, Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror), genre favorites (Bill Skarsgard, Clancy Brown), familiar faces (Ian McShane, Lance Reddick) and new blood (Shamier Anderson, musician Rina Sawayama) as Reeves' titular assassin treks the globe to end his quest against the secretive High Table.

With each installment, Stahelski has scaled the action up to more operatic and physically demanding heights, and his "John Wick 4" scenes in particular are exquisitely wrought spectacles of carnage turned all the way up to 11. A breathtaking God's-eye view as Wick mows his way through an enemy-infested house. The resourceful killer double-fisting guns and nunchaku amid antique samurai weapons encased in glass. A wrong-way speeding gunfight around the Arc de Triomphe. And a seriously long staircase with a loony payoff leading to the Sacre Coeur Basilica at dawn.

At a nearly three-hour running time, "John Wick 4" boasts four times more action than the previous entries while further synthesizing the inspirations already woven into the modern antihero saga's DNA: Sergio Leone Westerns, samurai tales, film noir, Joseph Campbell myth-making.


Yet Stahelski, 54, is loathe to call himself an artist. A dedicated craftsman, to be sure, but artist? That's a title reserved for Steven Spielberg or Leonardo da Vinci, he says. After leveling up and learning by working for genre legends like Yuen Woo-ping and Lana and Lily Wachowski, he still sees himself working to earn his right to the word.

"I know where to put a camera. I'm very good at editing, and I can see things in my head," he muses over breakfast at Culina in Beverly Hills the morning after finishing three years of work on the film as both director and producer. "I give you a blank piece of paper and go, 'Give me a great idea.' Not a lot of people can fill that page up. It's not remaking 'Batman'; it's the one that came up with 'Batman.' The imagination, the spark, the idea — that's artistry."

That spark is what Stahelski is chasing even as "John Wick 4" opens to the best reviews of the franchise. He's quick to exalt with rapid-fire passion the works that inspire him, such as influential anime "Ninja Scroll," the Lee Marvin classic "Point Blank," his favorite novel "Shibumi" by Trevanian, the James Bond movies he grew up watching and the works of Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-wai and Akira Kurosawa.

Confident and unshowy, Stahelski speaks with a self-described brutal honesty borne of decades in the stunt world, where straight talk is a necessity of the job. But Reeves, also an executive producer on "John Wick 4," describes the poetry in the director's meticulous approach to everything he puts onto the screen, especially in a fourquel that brings some finality to the gentleman killer's story.


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