Why John Wick Chapter 2 is a secret sequel to the Matrix
Sequels generally suck. Sure you get rare second symphonies like The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II, but for every Terminator 2 there’s the soul-crushing disappointment of a Matrix Reloaded.
Then there’s John Wick Chapter 2, a sequel as brutally efficient as its eponymous assassin. It’s so good it doesn’t just exceed its awesome 2014 predecessor, it reminds you how great Keanu Reeves can be and makes you yearn for a most excellent Matrix sequel – something Reeves recently said he’d seriously consider. But the truth is, you just got one.
Yep, we believe John Wick Chapter 2 is a Matrix movie in all but name. Lets’s look at the evidence.
THE DIRECTOR IS NEO FROM THE MATRIX
No, not Keanu Reeves. Director Chad Stahelski is an ex-stuntman with two decades of experience, most notably as Keanu’s stunt double in some of his greatest action films including Point Break, Constantine and, you guessed it, the Matrix trilogy. It’s an experience that gives Stahelski unique insight into what drives Reeves.
“I had to learn the fights too, so I was training with him – he’s still doing all the kung-fu, only I’m the one who’s going to get hit by the car,” Stahelski told us. “The Wachowskis are incredible taskmasters. After five months, you’re beat up and edgy, not eating because you’re on this diet, you’ve got to look good and you’re being judged on every little thing you do. If you’re insecure, if you’ve got an ego, hard training will boil it down to who you are.
“Keanu was in the most demanding role of everybody on that set and he never cracked. If he yelled, it’s only out of frustration at himself. I’ve seen that guy get the s**t kicked out of him, and I’ve been the guy kicking the s**t out of him – and he’s always gotten up.”
IT STARS KEANU REEVES AS A MORE BADASS ‘THE ONE’
In The Matrix, Keanu plays a seemingly ordinary man who discovers his life is a lie, gets kung-fu uploaded into his head and becomes a superhuman killing machine called The One. John Wick, on the other hand, is a seemingly ordinary man whose puppy is murdered, whereupon he reveals he’s already an unstoppable killing machine who knows a hell of a lot more than kung-fu. It’s something Stahelski equates to Reeves’ own evolution as an action star.
“The Matrix was an actor learning martial arts; Keanu is now a full-blown martial-arts stuntman. Count how many martial-arts fight scenes he’s done in 10 years – that’s probably triple the amount any high-level stunt guy does. We come in for two or three moves – the big spin-kick, the splits, the yank through the wall, but he’s on camera every take. He’s been on camera doing martial-arts choreography more than I have, and I did 20 years of it.”
About 14 years after The Matrix Revolutions, Reeves is apparently deadlier ever. “When you’re younger the recovery time is quicker, but as you get older, things become naturally easier because of your mindset. Confidence gets you through 90 per cent of what you used to rely on physically. If you look at the psychology of physiology, he’s 10 times better than The Matrix.”
IT REUNITES NEO AND MORPHEUS
In John Wick 2, Laurence Fishburne appears as an enigmatic wise man who exists outside the realms of normal reality and offers Wick a way out when he’s being hunted down by numerous agents of death. Basically, Morpheus.
“The Bowery King was written with Laurence in mind,” says Stahelski. “We didn’t think he’d do it, I didn’t even want to ask him, but Keanu and him are friends. They got together in LA and Keanu goes, ‘You ever see John Wick?’ And Laurence just smiled, ‘Yeah.’ Keanu was like, ‘Did you like it?’ And Laurence is like ‘Yeah.’ Keanu says, ‘We’re doing number two, what do you think?’ And Laurence goes, ‘Send me the script.’
Keanu called me and said, “I sent Laurence the pages.” I thought he was joking. He knew we’d written a scene based on Laurence, and Laurence emailed back, ‘I’m in.’”
IT TAKES PLACE IN A VIRTUAL REALITY
A lot of the action in the Matrix movies plays out like a video game because it’s literally taking place in a virtual reality. But the John Wick universe, while seemingly set in actual reality, also has the rules and physics of a video game, more so in Chapter 2. Wick takes out waves of assassins in a ‘maze level’ beneath the Colosseum in Rome, complete with power-ups dotted around the catacombs. While he might get bruised and bloodied, Wick never seems mortally wounded, even when hit by a car. He even has a special move over every other assassin.
“Yeah, the headshot.” says Stahelski, when we ask why nobody else shoots Wick in the head. “I get the tactical point, but you know, when you dance you always have one cool move that separates you from everybody else. That was ‘The Press’.
“Rather than just a straight arm, Keanu bends so he can [Stahelski demonstrates with gun fingers against an imaginary head]. Most tactical guys call it a press, or a contact shot. There’s something so aggressive about it, and no one else presses – to stand John Wick out a little bit more.”
IT’S A SECRET WAR
“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”
It’s a time-honoured movie trope known as ‘the masquerade’ – the idea of a hidden superhuman society living among us – think wizards in Harry Potter, mutants in X-Men, or the resistance and agents in the Matrix. In the John Wick universe, it’s assassins.
The first film merely teased this underworld – body-disposal crews, the universal currency of gold coins, and the rules of The Continental Hotel. In Chapter 2, we see far more of this secret world – a global network of hotels, the ‘weapons’ sommelier and a bespoke tailor that makes Kevlar-lined dinner suits.
Meanwhile, the public seems blissfully oblivious to the surrounding carnage, even when Wick is shooting assassins point-blank on a crowded dance floor or subway train. And the police never intervene. But perhaps the most blatant Matrix moment is when Continental Hotel owner Winston (Ian McShane) makes everyone in a park freeze – echoing the Woman in the Red Dress moment, or perhaps the mannequin challenge. Turns out everyone is an assassin.
So appealing is the masquerade to Stahelski, it’s influenced which film he’s planning to direct next. “I love Highlander,” he says. “It’s the vibes, the mythology. The trick would be to hold true to that while expanding the world, delving into what I love about it, which is the immortals. What’s it like to be an immortal? What would that action design be – someone that has trained for 500 years in every martial art on the planet? Can you imagine that? And what it would be like to be alive for that long, only being able to trust the guy that would chop off your head? That says it all. We’d like to do that series justice and bring it to a new audience.”
IT’S INSPIRED BY THE CROW
In 1994, Stahelski was working on a film called The Crow, an action-fantasy about a man who is murdered and comes back as an avenging angel to protect the one he loves. It was the breakthrough film for lead actor – and son of legendary martial-arts star Bruce Lee – Brandon Lee. Stalheski was his stunt double.
During the filming of the scene where Lee’s character is shot and killed, a defective blank in the prop gun tragically killed him. To honour the actor and complete the film, Stahelski doubled as Lee in his remaining scenes. It’s an experience that surely coloured Stahelski’s career, but did this tale about rebirth, revenge and redemption influence another very similar movie – John Wick?
“James O’Barr, who wrote The Crow, is one of my favourite graphic novelists,” says Stahelski. “If you go through James O’Barr’s story, his personal life, it’s like ‘Wow, I get suffering.’ [O’Barr was spurred to write The Crow when his girlfriend was killed by a drunk driver.] The Crow just had that empathy. If there’s anybody other than Brandon that could have played that part I think it would have been Keanu. [In 2000, Reeves lost his newborn daughter; her mother died in a car crash a year later.] After we started going down the road of John Wick, I don’t think we ripped it off, and I don’t think we went quite that dark, but there’s a definite similarity with the empathetic nature of the character.”
IT’S ALSO A LOVE LETTER TO BRUCE LEE’S GREATEST FILM
“I love Enter The Dragon and I wanted to do a mirror room. That was the first action scene I conceptualised for John Wick 2. It was something we wanted in John Wick 1, but couldn’t afford it,” say Stahelski. “Every scene’s got a mirror or puddle or reflection. That was a conscious thing. From the first shot – if you look in the Victoria’s Secret reflection, you can see the bike before it comes into frame – there’s all these hints the last scene’s going to be a mirror room.
“But when you budget half a million dollars for VFX and you build a three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar set, you have to justify it. ‘So let me get this straight, you guys want to do a gun fight in a room with mirrors, but it’s gonna be coloured red, blue and purple and you want video screens so there’s no way to edit it because of the video flicker, and you want water and an Escher infinity staircase that bounces light in the other direction, and you want us to pay for it?’ Yup. ‘And you have no idea if it’s gonna work?’ Yup. And somehow they said yes. “I guess they’d seen some of the other stuff and had faith in us.”