Keanu Reeves has been beating people up on screen for two decades.
It’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since he first appeared as hacker Neo in the game-changing and stylish sci-fi thriller The Matrix, directed by the Wachowski siblings, which has held an enduring influence over cinema fans and film-makers alike.
The spectacular fight scenes, which appear to combine classical dance with kung-fu action, perfectly showcased Reeves’ talents as an action star and catapulted audiences into the future of film.
Now, in the super-assassin John Wick, he has found another character equally proficient at fighting, who has captured the imagination of a passionate fan base.
“I don’t know how it’s happened,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to work on projects and stories that I love. For me to be able to try and do my best and give as much as I can to something that I love is a gift, so I’m here to serve.”
This is typically self-effacing from Reeves, who is now 54 and shows none of the bravado and swagger that sometimes accompanies other actors who have made tough action one of the key tenets of their acting repertoire.
The John Wick films, based round the shadowy world of the Continental Hotel which caters exclusively to the criminal underworld and permits no “business” on its premises, have been a huge, but slightly surprising hit.
The first grossed $88m worldwide, having cost just $20m to make. The second, released in 2017, raked in $171.5m worldwide, so it was inevitable that Reeves would be back for a third instalment.
Dubbed Parabellum (Latin for ‘prepare for war’), Chapter 3 finds Wick with a 14 million-dollar price tag on his head and the world’s most ruthless hitmen hot on his heels.
“From the outset we wanted to expand the world,” says Reeves. “And there has been a natural progression from the first John Wick, where you learn about the world of the Continental, to Chapter 2, where you learn a bit about the High Table (a council of high-level crime lords).
“Chapter 3 expands the world of the High Table but also draws upon everything that came before it. Hopefully people will enjoy it. It’s a labour of love for us and I love John Wick.”
As the film’s canvas grows ever bigger, the story demands an even more technically-evolved Wick.
“There is a knife fight scene in Chapter 3 that is crazy,” Reeves says enthusiastically.
“Chad wanted to do what he called a snowball fight with knives and the co-operation required to do that sequence is insane.
“Everyone knows that it’s pretty high-level stuff in terms of co-operation and giving it your all and when it goes well there is nothing like it. It’s like in sport, the whole team wins.”
Some of the fights are so ambitious that Reeves went into serious training four months before filming began.
“There are so many different kinds of action sequences – not only more styles of martial arts and more gun play, but also motorcycles, horses and dogs, so the training was intense.
“There was a move, when John Wick gets on a horse as he’s trying to escape and it turns into a ... well, it’s John Wick so it’s a gun fight.” He chuckles. “There is a sequence where I had to get off the saddle that was pretty tricky. It was pretty tense.”
Reeves was 27 when he first had a breakout action role, in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 film Point Break.
Before that he had starred opposite Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons and become famous with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but it was his action roles, including Speed, released in 1994, and The Matrix and its sequels that set the table for the Reeves we see on screen today.
“For me, action has always been about that connection between the audience and the character.
“If that connection is there, the action has an emotional impact and you can feel the stakes.
“Sometimes I would think that maybe the training for this film was hard because of my age, but then I realised no, this one would be hard even if I wasn’t 54 because there’s so much action in Parabellum,” he laughs. “It’s demanding but I like it that way.”
Indeed Reeves’ enthusiasm for training meant Stahelski could encourage his star to go further than he thought possible.
“We’ve always pushed Keanu to his limits but, in this film, there were farther limits,” the director acknowledges. “He brought his blood, sweat and tears to this one. John Wick goes to war with the world and this gives us a chance to go to new places, go deeper into his personal journey and expand the journeys of other characters.
“We really wanted each of the action sequences to bring a new and different flavor – each gives you a bit more insight and clues into the different elements of who John Wick is and the path he is on.
“We really don’t have any creative limits; it’s whatever world we want to make it and what you see on screen is stuff that interests us. We love Westerns, so that is why John Wick is on a horse. We love dogs, that’s why you see dogs, but you should have been at that first pitch meeting, it sounded a little wild. Dog fights? Keanu on a horse in Brooklyn? What?”
Wild or not, it sounds like a recipe for box office success.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (15) is out now.