John Wick’s Crazy Fight Scenes Invented To Save Money, Directors Reveal

"Do I look civilized to you?"

Keanu Reeves points a gun during a fight scene in John Wick 2.

Image: Lionsgate

It’s all well and good to take it from the top when your Hollywood stuntman doesn’t land all his punches. But when you’re trying to squeeze production into a 47-day shooting schedule and under a $30 million USD budget, you may need to start getting creative.

When Keanu Reeves approached Chad Stahelski and David Leitch to come on as directors of John Wick in 2014, they knew they weren’t being handed a blank cheque. Though the pair previously worked with Reeves as stunt doubles on the set of The Matrix and had since founded their own action design company 87Eleven, they had few directorial credits to their names.

So when the studio approved them coming onto the project, sticking to the more typical hand-to-hand combat for the fight scenes just wouldn’t do.

“The more you do punches and kicks, the more you gotta miss, because you gotta sell the hit, you gotta change the angle. So okay, we’re gonna get rid of punches and kicks,” said Stahelski in an interview with Forbes.

“We’re gonna do judo, jiu-jitsu, and tactical gun work, so we can hold all the shots, no cuts.”

Chad Stahelski
A fight scene in a hallway.
Tactical gun work replaced punches to reduce the number of ‘misses’. Image: Lionsgate

If the pair were to avoid shaky cams and choppy editing, and instead chase the longer tracking takes audiences were coming to expect from the action thriller genre, they had to find a fighter and a fighting style that would make the most of their project’s smaller capacity.

“Western cinema is constantly overcutting and forcing action with the camera, as opposed to letting someone who’s really good perform,” Leitch said to The Austin Chronicle.

“Time is money so if you’ve got a cast member that can get it done sooner you can get bigger takes,” Stahelski added.

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Keanu Reeves fends off two attackers.
Large sets were ditched in favour of close-quartered stand-off scenes. Image: Lionsgate

Reeves was the exact veteran they were after, having popularised the gun-fu style first introduced by Hong Kong director John Woo with western audiences as the all-black, dual pistol-wielding, bullet-dodging character Neo in The Matrix.

Now as the wizened ex-hitman John Wick, Reeves would play out less acrobatic large set-piece sequences, opting this time instead for a more composed balance between brawling and dancing.

“Dave, myself, and our stunt team molded him together, and we had a good guy performing. We tried not to do any tricks, we didn’t ramp anything, we didn’t use wires.”

Chad Stahelski

“So we developed a style and reverse-engineered from there,” Stahelski explains.

Keanu Reeves grapples a foe.
Grappling martial arts were used in longer shots. Image: Lionsgate

Reeves allegedly spent four months training in grappling martial arts before the first movie, training that is particularly evident in the close-quartered gunfight and stand-off scenes.

The surreal spectacle that resulted from this bloodshed on a budget has undoubtedly been a hit. The trilogy has grossed over $500 million USD and the franchise will add a fourth film when John Wick: Chapter 4 is released later next month.