Keanu Reeves: 'I love action films and I love being part of them, but they have got to have a story'
As John Wick: Chapter 2 hits cinemas today, Keanu Reeves talks to Paul Whittington about 'gun-fu' his varied career and proposing to Dianne Wiest
As waiting hacks disport themselves around a plush antechamber at Claridges, the portents are not good. Interviews are restricted to John Wick only, the studio minders tell us - no questions about anything else.
When a colleague emerges from the adjoining room, she looks shaken and explains that Keanu Reeves, while pleasant, answers in monosyllables and spends most of his time staring longingly into the middle distance. I prepare myself for the worst.
Happily, Reeves turns out to be much chattier than advertised: true, he does gaze dreamily off into space when not directly addressed, but eagerly leaps into the conversation whenever anything interests him, and seems perfectly happy to talk about subjects other than the product at hand.
Now 52, Reeves really does not look it. There's the odd line here or there, but no sign of medical intervention.
He would easily pass for 40, or younger, and, in fact, there's something of the energetic teenager about him.
Long and lean, all knees and elbows, he leaps about in his seat while talking, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is the sequel to a boldly original 2014 action film that earned critical acclaim and became a sleeper hit.
Reeves played a legendary hit man who reluctantly emerges from retirement to avenge the death of his dog at the hands of a Russian hoodlum.
The fight scenes were extraordinary, fluid and graceful, more like ballet than boxing, and if anything this sequel ups the ante, as Wick is targeted by an Italian gangster who insists on engaging his services and proves he's serious by using a bazooka to blow up John's ultra-modern house.
The film's director, Chad Stahelski, originally hooked up with Reeves while working as a stuntman on The Matrix. He explains: "When we first talked to Keanu about doing a second (John Wick), he said 'I don't know what else is going to happen but they've got to take my house away, take everything away, by the end of the movie, I'm going to have nothing'. And that was the first basic concept we had - in the first film, John was a force of nature going after people, and in this one, he's fighting them off."
Reeves nods in agreement. "I thought what was cool about the first one," he says, "was it started in such a quiet place, you know, where his wife was passing away and the first thing you learn about him is his grief and the depth of his feeling, and his aloneness.
"And so for me that was the integrity of the guy, and that's why I liked him. I really responded to his suffering, and the fact that he just wants to retire - he just wants to be left alone."
Left alone, however, he most certainly is not: after an assassination attempt goes awry in Rome he ends up with what looks like the entire Italian Mafia on his tail. During one, extended subterranean fight scene Wick dispatches, by my count, between 40 and 50 assailants using a ghastly mélange of jiu-jitsu and firearms.
"Keanu started calling it 'gun fu'," Stahelski tells me, "and there's this kind of rhythm to it, you know, shoot, punch, punch, punch, shoot, spin, shot you again - there's just a rhythm to everything he does. In the first film, when Keanu started playing Wick, he would just round his shoulders and hulk, and it just seemed like punching or kung fu might be okay but it was more like, 'come here', which is why we went with judo. The gripping and the pulling of it just had this sense of constant attachment, like a dance almost, that we really liked."
"But hang on a second guys," Reeves interjects, "I'm vulnerable. John Wick is vulnerable, and you knock him down, he gets hit by cars, he gets shot, thrown through glass. I mean come on."
He's not wrong: the film's opening scenes also include what one might call 'car fu', as John Wick and others are repeatedly hit by speeding automobiles.
As ever, his enemies come off worst, but Reeves insists his killer has a soul. "There's this lovely moment where John Wick is in the bank, and he's remembering his wife and he's about to be forced to kill again and he's alone and he screams. That's just a weird moment, it's private, it's who he really is. So I love that private/public aspect of the character, and the duality that there's John the grieving husband, and John the assassin."
John Wick: Chapter 2 is robust stuff, and a lot of fun, but it's not Reeves' first rodeo so I break with protocol and ask him if he has a favourite among his other films.
"Can I have four? he asks, and as he proceeds to name them I'm reminded of just how many great movies this man has starred in over the years.
"So I would start early with River's Edge (Tim Hudson's crime drama), then I would go to My Own Private Idaho with Gus Van Sant, and then maybe Bertolucci's Little Buddha, Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate, I would say The Matrix, and maybe Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break as my first action film, and I think Thumbsucker (Mike Mills' amusing indie comedy), Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, Francis Lawrence's Constantine. Those are my favourites today, anyway."
I tell him my favourite scene he ever did was in Ron Howard's 1989 ensemble drama Parenthood, in which he played Tod Higgins, a young wastrel who horrifies a staid middle-class couple by proposing to their teenage daughter. The mother, played by Dianne Wiest, detests Tod until he quietly tells her the story of his abusive upbringing.
"Oh yeah," Reeves says, "you mean the scene in the kitchen. "You know," he continues, with a rueful smile, "I proposed to Dianne Wiest on that film. I got on my knee and I said, 'Dianne, will you marry me?', and she was like 'oh that's so sweet, you're so cute'. She is amazing."
The success of John Wick has raised conjecture that as he grows older, Reeves will, à la Liam Neeson, concentrate exclusively on action vehicles. He's not so sure.
"I love action films, and I love being a part of them, but they have to have a story and they have to have a real film-maker behind them, you know - I don't want to just start doing them for the sake of it, just showing up."
He pauses, and smiles ruefully. "But that's what I'm saying now - maybe in five years, I'll feel different!"
- John Wick: Chapter 2 is at cinemas from today