You know what’s a great feeling at a festival: Knowing nothing about a movie and maybe not even being that interested and then suddenly needing to see it. That was the case for me with Atomic Blonde since even just reading the description slightly I didn’t think I was interested until the trailer showed up a few days before the premier. Seeing a crazy action movie with Charlize Theron and directed by David Leitch who co-directed John Wick had me waiting in line 2 hours during SXSW to see this one and to be able to give you this review now.
At Fantastic Fest 2014 John Wick premiered to a crowd a little dubious of a big star led action movie (we get plenty that are no more than marketing) and turned out to be an instant classic. Ben was there and got the chance to sit down with John Wick himself, Keanu Reeves, for an interview. As John Wick 2 premiers today we wanted to share that interview with you again. You can find the interview here and keep an eye out this weekend for our John Wick 2 review!
Written by: Ben
I feel pretty secure in saying that Keanu Reeves is probably one of the most well known actors working today. From as far back as Point Break and Speed, he has been bringing action movies to the theaters that have become timeless favorites for many of us. As such, when I found out he was bringing his new film John Wick to Fantastic Fest, I was excited to see it. But I also had the pleasure of getting to sit down with Keanu and talk with him about the movie.
The character of John Wick not only lives up to the action skill we come to expect from Keanu, but also to the level that is frequently on display at Fantastic Fest. Keanu went into some detail about the appeal of portraying a hitman:
They’re fun. With John Wick I was attracted to his grief, I liked the intensity of the emotion; the connection that he felt to the life he was living, leaving the past behind. Once the relationship to the memory of his wife is violated, the unleashing of this Old Testament, Greek Mythological force. There’s something about his power. I also liked the particulars of the story, but I like the vulnerability and the power to do something about it. Its something I feel the audience reacts to as well to be able to overcome odds. To proxy for us in the story
Next he delved into the suit John Wick wears as his ‘armor’ in the form described originally by Jean-Pierre Melville and how it got him into the character:
Absolutely. It was a big part of the pre-production and creative process with the directors and with the wardrobe designer. What is he gonna wear, what is that suit gonna look like? Then it turned into the hair and the beard;. Beard or no beard? How does the suit fit and what does that all mean? You know this armor, this character this transformation. It was fun to put that all together. The filmmakers had a real definite feeling of what they wanted to convey. When they saw the silhouette of John, it was there. It felt right. I also like when he looks at his own reflection there, he understands, he has a reticence and there’s an ambivalence to it.
I then asked Keanu about how he felt the more gratuitous violence set John Wick apart from other films:
I like Captain America, but I’m a Raid 2 guy. I like dramatic action, I like an emotional action, as opposed to ’spectacle action’. I love spectacle action like in the James Bond films, but I like it when there’s a story telling and that often is achieved by being able to put the character in the world like it’s really happening. I got lucky with who I worked with on Point Break and with Speed and with the Wachowskis. To be working with people that were able to put me in places where normally you couldn’t go; like if it was under a bus, or on a surfboard or some kind of gunfight. With John Wick, longer takes and not necessarily cutting to close-ups then cutting to wider or jittery camera. They wanted to do a different style. I like that in a way you can connect with the performer and then with the story get emotionalized because ’you’re there’. You believe that that’s happening you know. I’m a fan.
He then went into how he was largely the one doing the stunts and occasionally with limited rehearsing done for them:
The filmmakers really come from a stunt background and I met them on the Matrix Trilogy. I have since worked with them and they’ve worked second unit directing on The Hunger Games, The Expendables, 300, and a lot of Statham movies. They raised the bar really high and they wanted to do long takes, and not so many cuts. They wanted to integrate gun work, pistol work, with Judo, Jujitsu. They introduced me to some professionals to teach me those different skills. They wanted me to have a skill set because I didn’t get to do 2 months of training, I was learning choreography the weekend before we shot it, or 2 nights before we were doing it. For the fight with Adrianne Palicki, I learned it the day that we shot it. They were giving me a skill set and then would be like “OK Keanu, we’ve built you this room and we have a bunch of things for you to do. And everyone relse around you has been practicing…GO!.” I liked that challenge, but it was new territory for me.. It was really intense that way.
There was also the question about how the films interesting take on the criminal underworld that focused on rules and honor was constructed and what about that drew him to it:
Well, everything about that sounds really cool! I think the first thing is the breaking the rules. It feels like that’s the architecture of story telling and that’s the architecture outside of fiction, it’s just how we mature. Like “don’t do this, do this.” How you interact or culturally interact. Then when you go into a story, those lines are delineated and investigated. So for this one I liked the idea of fate, I like the idea of the underworld having a kind of honor to it. And then I like in this film, with the normal world, well its like a neutral place: what can you make of it. He’s made a life, he’s made a good life with his own rules and got out of those [underworld] expectations. When his wife dies, she leaves him the honor, this gift, this love from beyond. And its taken away. He’s taken back into this. I think of John Wick as an emissary, he’s almost an emissary for himself in this.
Reeves then discussed how critical he is of his own performances after viewing it with an audience:
I’m pretty critical of my own work before the audience gets there. If I’m in an environment with an audience, I hope they like it. I’ve had a couple of moments in screenings, when the audience connects to the material; you can hear that and feel that. For me, that’s part of that wanting to tell the story. Then the private dialogue sometimes intrudes, “we got that, cool, that was ok” etc. Also, as a performer, you’re looking at other people’s choices. You’re looking at the editorial decisions, if what you’d hope for in pre-production got realized. Like the suit! You hope that works.
John Wick is in theaters on October 24th.
I gotta admit, I was a bit concerned as I sat down for John Wick because, even with Keanu’s movie last year Man of Thai Chi, the movie’s that come to Fantastic Fest with a big star frequently are a bit of a let down. The plot summary was also a bit dull and played out, on paper at least, which really didn’t give it much more faith. But Keanu is Keanu and with him comes some trust as he picks his projects well and really is a great guy (speaking of which, if you haven’t seen it you can find my interview with Keanu here) So I went into opening night with some very cautious optimism and came out on the other side.
As I said, the plot is a little simple as Keanu plays the titular John Wick, a retired hitman. His wife had just died from some disease (I don’t believe it’s ever names but I’d assume Cancer) and as he is drowning himself in grief he is surprised by the arrival of a puppy she sent him to help him grieve after her death. This last gift means the world to him as he welcomes the puppy into his life, and everything seems to be fine as he cares for the dog as he does for his beloved car…that is until someone Russian Mafia punks get eyes for his car. After they break into his home, beat him, kill his dog and take the car we find that Wick isn’t just any hit man but rather used to be the greatest hitman this same mob has ever seen, and feared. The only reason the culprits aren’t turned over immediately is that one of them is the boss’s son and as such he will try to stop Wick and protect his son despite Wick being a force of nature.
The big thing you really want to take from that description right now is that Wick is feared, because that is the first important part of what makes this film a joy. Most other movies of this type go with the main character being the biggest badass in the world and yet no one seems scared of him, not even the 10th guy in a room who just saw 9 of his friends just summarily dispatched by him. But from the very beginning here we see the big tough crime boss literally rattled to his core that Wick is mad at him and coming after them. It is used as a great character sets and a great bit of black humor which is prevalent throughout. I have to say overall the film has the best creative interpretation of the criminal underworld and dark humor since Lucky Number Slevin and it is a very refreshing and welcome thing. Too often gritty and terse dialogue with one liners is used and it not only gets dull but also doesn’t breathe any life into a script or world.
One of the biggest pluses as well as the main flaw of the movie also comes in the form of its first time director, Chad Stahelski. Stahelski is a long time stunt coordinator and choreographer who has worked with Keanu on countless films since meeting on The Matrix and was brought in by Keanu to direct this film. His knowledge of stunts led to some truly fantastic fight scenes that are brutal and beautiful and honestly are even among some of the best I’ve seen at Fantastic Fest this year. It’s not a movie for the squeamish or those even a little unsure on their feelings for blood splurging head shots, but it is a refreshing amount of violence for a movie made with such big names who are usually more concerned about the movie being widely commercial. Sadly the direction does also fail in that his inexperience led to what was some uneven editing in my opinion. Early on there are some odd feeling fades to black that hold for a few seconds and are very notice and break up the pacing a bit much. There was also some issues with the subtitles for me as they almost felt distracting at times. They are generally a good size but frequently are in different areas around the screen like a comic book panel for little clear reason, and there are also some times extra emphasis is put on the text for certain words in the subtitles when the delivery in the original Russian already did a fine job highlighting it. These are minor things on the grand scale of things with such a good movie, but I’d be remiss not to mention what flaws I found.
Keanu is a terrific leading man in the brutal John Wick that more than fits in with the other terrific films of Fantastic Fest. Besides a few missteps understandable for a first time director it is a funny and violent film that I look forward to seeing once again after its wider release an highly recommend you all do the same.