John Wick 2 Made Keanu Reeves A Better Action Star

Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne in John Wick 2 banner

While the first John Wick has its share of fist-fighting, the action is primarily comprised of intense, close-quarters gunfights. That trend continues in John Wick: Chapter 2, but everything is ratcheted up to eleven.

The people responsible for the fantastic action in these movies is the team at 87Eleven Action Design. Co-owned by the creators of John Wick, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, 87Eleven is your one-stop spot for all kinds of stunt training and choreography.

Screen Rant sat down with Stahelski and stunt coordinator J.J. Perry to talk about the intensive training that star Keanu Reeves went through to prepare for the film and how they decide what kind of fight styles characters in the film will use. Stahelski also waxes poetic about being able to reunite Reeves with his Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne.

How do you up the ante of the gun-fu from the first movie?

Chad Stahelski: A very common question. I’ll throw it over to J.J.

J.J. Perry: I like to call it gun jitsu, but some people like to call it gun-fu. I think the way to make it better is to make Keanu better. And what we did on this one is, you know, the bar was set, we knew where the bar was, and Keanu being our starting pitcher, you just warm his arm up, give him every opportunity to succeed. So we had him—you know, having a guy like that that will put in the time isn’t always the case, you know, having a lead like that that really will commit to it. And it was three and a half months, five to six hours a day, in this gym, in the laboratory, in 87Eleven, with some of the best jiu jitsu, judo, sambo guys ever training him. Two times a week at Taran Butler’s range, which is in Simi Valley, “three gun” training, and putting down 400 to 600 rounds downrange every session. And this went on for three and a half months, and then the choreography evolved and developed based on his skill sets, and seeing the locations. So, making him better was how I think we started to make the action in John Wick 2 better.

John Wick 2 poster - Reload (cropped)

So at this point Keanu’s pretty proficient with using guns and all that kind of stuff?

Chad Stahelski: I’d say he’s at a competitive level.

J.J. Perry: Yeah, I’d be careful if I’m—

Chad Stahelski: Maybe you wanna explain what “three gun” is, too.

J.J. Perry: “Three gun” is rifle/shotgun/pistol. It’s a competition based on time with different scenarios or different stages.

I think I saw a YouTube video of him—

J.J. Perry: Exactly. And the reason I thought this was a great idea was because it’s kind of like choreography. The course changes every time, like you shoot the same course for like five or six runs. Now you change it. It kind of lends itself to the way choreography would go. So in his mind he’s not thinking this—he’s just, target acquisition, take it, take it. Acquire target, take it, take it, take it, and take it down and go move on to the next one.

It’s way more strategic than just pointing and shooting, there’s a lot that goes into that.

J.J. Perry: Yeah, and we also had him training with [a] Navy SEAL, a special forces guy—

Chad Stahelski: SWAT.

J.J. Perry: Yeah,a  SWAT guy. We had him train across the board. We just kept feeding him a steady diet of killers, which would raise his game. Because he’s not law enforcement, he’s not military, he’s a lone killer, he’s a lone assassin. So it means he can’t rely on a team, he has to rely on himself, which changes the rules of engagement.

So in the first movie, Adrianne [Palicki] does a lot of hand-to-hand combat. Is it a completely different process for a character like her?

Chad Stahelski: I think what we want to do is—when we choreograph, when we design choreography, we try to take it from a character standpoint first. Obviously you write a script and it’s like, a Jason Bourne or a John Wick or something like that, you don’t start choreographing double twisting wire moves and backflips, or doing the splits. You try to keep it so it fits the character, or the tone of the film. With John Wick we wanted to do something like that, as well. So rather than punching, kicks—and for the kind of way we wanted to shoot it, which is longer takes—our initial instinct was let’s go with a throwing or grappling arm. We wanted something where John could still use a firearm, whether it’s aikido, aiki jitsu, or judo, which once he grabs, he throws. Super effective, super tactical close-quarter work. Like, you don’t get in close and then spin-hook kick. So we tried to take it from that point of view.

So with Adrianne it was like, how would a female wanna be—so we took it from a Japanese/Brazilian jiu jitsu aspect, where how does a—a believable way that a female would take on a much larger male.

Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne in John Wick 2 banner

I noticed a lot of the Brazilian jiu jitsu influence, cause I know she tries to put Keanu in a kimura lock at one point.

Chad Stahelski: Yeah, it’s one of our staples here at 87Eleven. We’re under Rigan Machado, who I think is one of the best jiu jitsu instructors at least in Los Angeles, if not in the world. We have a lot of his instructors here, as well as Japanese jiu jitsu, Japanese judo, and sambo. That was Keanu’s recipe.

J.J. Perry: The ingredients.

I have a question for you [Chad], I’m a huge fan of John Wick, I’m a huge fan of The Matrix, how was it reuniting Laurence and Keanu? Like how did that all come about?

Chad Stahelski: It was great. I spent a lot of time with both, obviously, on the Matrix trilogy. Worked a lot, on a day-to-day level, with Laurence Fishburne. And then we’d bumped into each other through the film community for years and years. Keanu and I were in New York, I was prepping John Wick 2. When we originally sat down and wrote the script for John Wick 2 we created a character that you’ll see in the film we just referred to as the Bowery King, he runs a second kind of underworld in the film. And when Keanu, [writer] Derek Kolstad, and myself sat down and wrote the character, it was completely, one hundred percent based on Laurence Fishburne. Like, in my head I saw this guy. I knew we wanted to tie in New York’s—the homeless population as an underworld element, in a somewhat mythological light. And I heard the guy’s voice as Laurence, it was just in my head. But we never even planned to even—Laurence is so busy, and we’re like, “we’ll never get Laurence Fishburne.”

Cut to months later, I get this random email about two months out from filming from Keanu, “hey I just bumped into Laurence, he’s like ‘what’s up?’” I’m like, “what do you mean?” He’s like, “well he wants to be—is there a spot for him in John Wick 2?” I’m like, “are you kidding?” I mean, literally it took about thirty seconds to send back a response, go “get him on the phone now.” He’s like, “Yeah, cool, hey, what’s up?” and didn’t miss a beat.

And you know, I consider Laurence, Keanu, both very acclaimed actors, I mean so good. And you never know—when I first met Laurence I was Keanu’s stunt double on the first Matrix. Matrix 2 and 3, I was one of the stunt coordinators, then I started doing my action directing career under the Wachowskis at the time. So, a little evolution there with career status. But then cut to the thirteen/fourteen years later where now I’m asking Laurence Fishburne to trust my directorial capacity, or my directorial knowledge, whatever, to come on and risk his career being in our movie. And the fact that he said yes, trusted, and got himself out to New York. We all met in Laurence’s apartment, went over the scene. Laurence helped redo some of the dialogue, he and Keanu workshopped it. And he couldn’t have been more respectful couldn’t have been more brilliant on set. I said, “look, I’m gonna have to work you a little bit here cause I only get you for three days.” He never left set, was always engaging, always working on his lines, it was awesome.

And then, I’m not gonna lie to you, we’re sitting on this rooftop set in Brooklyn, I’m sitting there, I got the techno train coming around Keanu and Laurence, and Laurence is giving the line “the man, the myth, the legend,” and I’m just sitting at the monitors going, “holy shit.” You know, everyone brings up the Matrix reunion kind of thing, and it was just a matter of Laurence is who we wrote the part for, Keanu and Laurence are actual friends, they actually enjoy a very close working relationship. And to see them both, and to see—Laurence is a great example of how to communicate to the audience as you’re acting with another actor. He’s talking, but he’s speak—Laurence is having fun with the role, and you get it, and you feel that he’s having fun, you can feel that Keanu’s having fun. It’s just a good scene, it’s got a good energy to it. Yeah I can’t say enough, I was pinching myself.

I’ve got one last question. If you could team up John Wick with any other character, like James Bond or anybody, who would it be?

J.J. Perry: Well if you wanted to kill James Bond you’d send John Wick.

Chad Stahelski: John Wick doesn’t team up.

NEXT: Can John Wick Be A Great Action Franchise?

Key Release Dates
  • John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) release date: Feb 10, 2017
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