Keanu Reeves hasn’t been in the Hollywood spotlight the past five years the way he was when he was turning out major feature films like “The Matrix,” “Speed” and “The Devil’s Advocate.” That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy.
Since appearing in the big-budget remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 2008, Reeves made his directing debut with “Man of Tai Chi” along with starring in and producing the documentary “Side by Side.” He also appeared in the independent films “Henry’s Crime” and “Generation Um ...”.
“It’s just that I hadn’t made an American action film during that time,” Reeves says.
His latest work is in “John Wick,” the kind of big American action film that puts Reeves back the spotlight. The 50-year-old actor plays a retired assassin forced back to work by a group of thugs who take away the most important things in his life.
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Wick’s a killing machine who shows a few signs of rust. Reeves explains that having Wick dealing with some side affects of being out of the killing game for a few years was a decision by director Chad Stahelski. He wanted Wick to have moments where he’s not completely on his game to show vulnerability in the character.
Reeves has always enjoyed a good action movie, and he went through three months of what he calls “John Wick boot camp” to handle the almost non-stop fight scenes. But it was the softer parts of the script that lured him to the role.
“Here we have this mythical assassin coming back to his dark trade. It’s a job that he does with grace and grit. He’s not just a super-human character,” Reeves says. “I never thought of John as a psychopath, but as a man with a job to do. He isn’t out there killing innocent people. Everyone he kills in the film is trying to kill him. He walked away from the dark side but becomes so angry when things — that he worked so hard for — get taken away.”
Reeves worked just as hard on the emotional scenes as he did on making the choreographed fight scenes look real. In “The Matrix,” he had three weeks to learn one fight sequence. In “John Wick,” the fights were staged quickly to give them as much gritty reality as possible.
Even the selection of Wick’s look, that includes a beard and longer hair, is designed to make this role more down and dirty.
“Audiences haven’t seen much of him,” producer Basil Iwanyk says. “We thought that gave him a fresh and interesting edge. I think the audience will believe that this character has been retired for five years, because in some ways Keanu retired as an action star for a while.”
Reeves was involved with the project from the beginning, offering his input on the character. It was a chance to combine the knowledge he got while working as a director and producer with the acting skills that made him a box office superstar.
The director says Reeves made it his mission to pull everyone in the cast together, no matter the size of their role.
“He cares about them all, just like the department heads care about their people,” Stahelski says. “Keanu takes the other performers under his wing on the set. He’ll knock on the person’s door, and say, ‘Hi, I’m Keanu Reeves. Welcome to John Wick. Is there anything I can do for you?’”
Now that Reeves has returned to more mainstream work, he’s keeping it going with the home invasion film “Knock, Knock” and the courtroom drama “The Whole Truth” scheduled to for release in 2015.
Reeves enjoyed playing John Wick so much he would portray the character again. He’s done sequels in the past, including “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” the 1991 followup to the 1989 release “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Reeves keeps getting asked about playing Theodore “Ted” Logan one more time. He’s not against the idea.
“A lot of people hold those films in such great affection,” Reeves says. “I really enjoyed playing that character.”