Just over two years ago, John Wick came out of nowhere and delighted audiences with a mix of B-movie camp and A-level action moves. Co-directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, the film took a tactical approach to cinematic combat, with vicious brutality captured with smooth camera work. Now the sharp-dressed killer is back in John Wick: Chapter 2, in which an open contract forces Wick (Keanu Reeves) to fight for his life across two continents, from the catacombs of Rome to the packed subways of New York.
All sequels need to up the ante from the original, and for John Wick, that tall task fell on the broad shoulders of J.J. Perry, proprietor of the fight studio 87eleven. The man certainly speaks like someone who perpetually lives at the extreme; he spent much of a phone conversation with Inverse earlier this week pulling double duty by simultaneously cleaning his gun collection.
Perry says his team wanted Wick to be a “jack of all trades” as a killer combatant, so they mixed in a smorgasbord of grappling disciplines into his arsenal. The list included judo, Russian Sambo, and jiu-jitsu. “[Reeves is] already a good striker,” Perry said, noting that the star learned kung fu and taekwondo and starred in action flicks such as The Matrix and Man of Tai Chi.
Reeves endured a long training camp with 87eleven, the L.A.-based team that’s also worked on Ninja Assassin and The Wolverine. “We start stringing together pieces of choreography we want to plug and play, but the true choreography doesn’t show up until we have the location,” explained Perry, “because locations offer a lot of opportunity on what’s not just going to be cool, but outrageous.”
This prep came useful when shooting the biggest fight scenes Wick versus badass bodyguard Cassian (played by Common) in Rome, Wick versus Cassian again in a subway car, and Wick versus Ares (Ruby Rose) in a room of mirrors — exhausted everyone the most. Because of the budget, they didn’t have the luxury of sets that could be totally manipulated. “When you have a build on stage, you can make it camera-friendly,” says Perry. “Unfortunately, the budget didn’t warrant that.”
To rehearse the subway fight, 87eleven built a mock set, with the exact dimensions of a subway car. “We build the space were going to be fighting in,” Perry says, down to “putting up benches and bars to hang onto.” Thanks to their experience planning subway fights for the 2012 Jason Statham movie Safe, the team already knew what worked and what didn’t. “We knew it ended with Common getting a knife in his left aorta, so we had to build around that using Keanu’s judo and jiu-jitsu, a little knife work,” and playing up the strengths of Common, who didn’t have the same knowledge of action movie combat as his co-star.
More brutal was another, earlier fight between Wick and Cassius in Rome, during which the two wrestle down several levels of concrete steps. “That is the biggest stair fall ever done [in movies], as far as I know,” says Perry. The stairs were found during location scouting in Italy with Stahelski, who came up with the stunt. “I immediately counted the stairs and then I thought, I’m not going to pad all these stairs. That will be $50,000 in neoprene.”
The solution? Perry offered a sweet bonus to whoever of his two stuntmen, Danny Graham and Jackson Spidel, got to the bottom first. “You should have seen these motherfuckers try to get to the bottom to get that money, brother,” Perry jokes, adding they shot the stunt three or four times in a row.
Another difficult scene was the climactic shootout and fight between Wick and Ruby Rose’s Ares, a mute killer who works for the main villain Santino (Riccardo Scarmacio). Set in a hall of mirrors like the final fight of Enter the Dragon, Wick picks off Santino’s men one by one before facing off with Ares.
The film disorients the audience’s sense of direction as Wick navigates the mirrored maze where it’s impossible to tell who is where. Attacks come out of the blue, and from all corners; sometimes we see the real action, and at other moments, its reflection. But to plot it out, Perry says it was the “trickiest prep and required the most thought process” of his career. “There’s only so much money they had in VFX to paint cameras out,” he explained. “The reflection of the camera operator can never touch the reflection of the player.”
On top of the reflection problem, Perry says his team didn’t have a lot of time to create the scene. The set wasn’t completed until well into production, forcing Perry and his team to be as quick and smart as Wick himself. “Every night after work, my team and I had to go down there with our cameras,” he says. “Then we started looking for shots, looking for reflections of a reflection of a reflection of the real thing. We’re looking for all those targets of opportunity and trying to make it so you can’t see the camera.”
“It’s a mindfuck,” added Perry.
But all the work is worth it when the audience squirms and twists in their seats as killers get knifed in the throat, thrown down a bunch of steps in Rome, or stabbed in the ear with a pencil. “That’s the way I approach R-rated choreography. I play on that knee-jerk reaction,” he says. “That’s part of my job: that ‘ooh, ahh’ moment. I’m constantly looking for that.”
John Wick: Chapter 2 is now in theaters.
Photos via Lionsgate