‘We Give a Sh*t’: Gun Safety Defines the John Wick Franchise as Much as the Weapons Do (2024)

Of the many weapons that mythic assassin John Wick has used to kill hundreds of bad guys over the span of four movies (a book, a pencil, a wire, a car door, a horse, an axe, drums), a gun still best defines him — and the series.

“No one does guns more than we do,” said “John Wick” director Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman. With the four films in the franchise, Stahelski has taken “gun-fu” (a balletic blend of martial arts and gunfighting) to new commercial and creative heights even as the use of guns on set has become hotly debated since the death of “Rust” cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” was in production in Paris when the incident happened in October 2021, but though there was intense concern for those involved, the “Wick” set wasn’t shaken — primarily because Stahelski has gone to great lengths to create a culture of safety and preparedness around the weaponry.

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“There is no reason to have a practically functioning gun on a set,” Stahelski said. “To have a live round on a set is criminal. There isn’t a gun on our set that you could put a round into that it would be able to fire.”

The subject is particularly close to Stahelski, who was the stunt double for Brandon Lee, who was killed by a gun discharge on the set of “The Crow” in 1993. Stahelski refrains from speaking specifically about Lee or what happened on “Rust” but says there’s an industry-wide problem. “Ninety percent of the weapons available to rent are practical firearms,” he said. “So you’re asking the industry to dump all their rentals and restock. Not that it shouldn’t happen.”

Yet the “John Wick 4” production corralled dozens of stunt actors, hundreds of firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition into 14 action sequences on four continents, all while creating a unified tone for a coherent narrative without anyone ever getting hurt by any of those guns.

“The baseline is that we give a sh*t — more than anybody else,” said Stahelski with Wick-like bluntness.

‘We Give a Sh*t’: Gun Safety Defines the John Wick Franchise as Much as the Weapons Do (3)

While most productions bring their stunt crews in four to eight weeks before production, Stahelski brings in his six months out. Most actors train for six to eight weeks; Reeves trains for six to eight months. The extra effort and diligence are expected of the camera crew and everyone on the set.

“They train for months and months not to master one sequence but to master the movement and the flow,” said “Wick” weapons master Rock Galotti, who worked on “The Matrix Reloaded” with Stahelski, who was then the stunt coordinator. “So that when you put the weapon in the hand, and something happens in the moment, they can change, and the action develops.”

Nothing exemplifies this better than when Reeves’ gun occasionally jams during a take, such as when the bullet casing gets caught in the slide. On most productions, the actor will stop and wait for a replacement or for the gun to be fixed. But not the man who plays John Wick. “Keanu’s weapon manipulation is such that he will see what’s wrong and release the slide, or he will change magazines on camera,” said “Wick” stunt coordinator Stephen Dunlevy. “So, some of the magazine changes aren’t scripted. It’s how John Wick would actually handle a weapon malfunction.”

“Keanu is the most focused actor with firearms I’ve ever worked with,” said Galotti, who spent months with Stahelski developing the guns for “Wick,” including entirely new firearms such as the Pit Viper handgun, and arduously retrofitting goofy single-shot dueling pistols into something cool.

On set, Galotti expects “everyone to listen” when he talks. He advises the crew where to put the camera and where the actors must stand in case bullet casings are released. For every take that involves a gun, the weapon is inspected by the first assistant director, the stunt coordinator and Galotti, who passes the weapon to the actor and, while maintaining eye contact to make sure he’s being understood, talks through what’s important, including keeping fingers off triggers and how many rounds will be shot.

“I work on movies to not make friends,” Galotti said. “I work on movies to make sure no one gets hurt.”

On an industry-wide level, Galotti has been instrumental in doing just that after developing what’s called “solid plug load,” or just “solid plug” guns, when he worked on John Woo’s “Face/Off” in 1997. Plugged guns are what they sound like: There’s no hole for anything to come out of. But a load — or bullet casing — can still cycle through the chamber, and the weapon manipulates the slide so that the brass gets ejected, making it appear to function like a real gun. The gun and the brass can still get hot, but lives are not in danger. There are also rubber dummy guns and, in rehearsals, the actors and stuntmen sometimes use Airsoft guns, very real-looking toy weapons that can only shoot plastic pellets.

“Four ‘John Wicks’ and hundreds of thousands of rounds that have been shot,” stunt coordinator Scott Roger said. “And no one has ever gotten hurt by them.”

Stahelski acknowledges that, in addition to the skillset and experience his team has with guns, they also have the benefits of a budget that can utilize visual effects to make their guns safe and awesome at the same time. All of the muzzle flashes and the slide movement and brass ejections of the rubber guns are visual effects, while the sound department inserts all of the gun sounds in post-production.

“I’m all for visual effects,” Stahelski said. “As a former stunt guy, are you kidding? To make it safe?”

What matters to the “Wick” team is that the effects never get in the way of the storytelling. John Wick isn’t a superhero. There are no computer-generated versions of Wick swinging from tall buildings. When he falls down 222 stairs, as he does outside the Sacrè-Cœur Basilica in Paris, that’s a real human being (stuntman Vincent Bouillon) falling down those stairs. (In four takes.) “Keeping it grounded and real hides the illusion,” Rogers said.

The movie magic of “Wick,” according to Stahelski, comes down to its “aesthetic,” which he has built over the four films. “Wick” is steeped in various traditions — the gunslinger wild west, anime, kung fu films — and feels like a fable with its own set of rules and reality. “We also try to do it with a little humor,” Stahelski said. “It’s about the tone. That’s why the blood is a little over-red. We’re trying to make it like manga. We’re trying to let the audience in. There’s a reason we kill 50 instead of 20 [bad guys in a scene]. We want you to know that we’re in on the joke.”

One of those jokes is the bullet-proof suits that Reeves and others flick over their heads to deflect bullets. “Once you get moviegoers to buy in—like the absurdity of a bulletproof suit — you can almost sell them anything,” stunt coordinator Scott Rogers said. “It’s fun. So we do it.”

‘We Give a Sh*t’: Gun Safety Defines the John Wick Franchise as Much as the Weapons Do (4)

In Wick world, few elements are more fun than the introduction of the new guns — not unlike the gadgets in the James Bond series — which Wick wields with relish. In “Wick” 4, the firearm that makes the biggest impression is the seemingly ridiculous Genesis 12 shotgun, which shoots massive shells apparently laced with fire.

The thing is, the shotgun, when loaded with incendiary ammunition called “Dragon’s Breath,” is real. (Look it up on YouTube.) To replicate the Dragon’s Breath’s fireworks-like display during production, two of the kills are actually propane pellets launched at stuntmen who are “fueled up” so that when the propane blows, he hits a squib on his body and is engulfed in flames. Otherwise, the visual effects team filmed real Dragon’s Breath and then digitally added it to the gun and its recipients.

For Stahelski, there is nothing gratuitous about such gunplay because it is integral to the film. “We want to make things look cool and to change things up. We wanted something that could elevate the aesthetic,” he said.

In the video below, watch Stahelski on why he teaches Reeves and others dance choreography, not stunts.

“I’m into motion. I’m a Bob Fosse fan,” Stahelski adds. “We’re into creating an aesthetic that makes you feel like it’s a dance.” His reference points include the films of Akira Kurosawa, manga and “The Matrix,” as well as one of his favorite films, “All That Jazz.”

The lofty heights that Stahelski aspires to can be seen in what the “John Wick” 4 crew calls the “top-shot,” a sequence in which the audience’s point of view is almost entirely from the ceiling looking straight down. We watch Wick walk up a staircase and then through multiple rooms, taking on various assailants and killing them with the Genesis 12. There is no “Texas switch,” the term used for the filmmaking sleight of hand where misdirection allows a stunt double to step in for the actor in the middle of a shot. It’s all Keanu in one long shot.

It’s bravado filmmaking reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s long Copacabana shot in “Goodfellas,” but with gun-fu. Recognizing the filmmaking artistry that goes into such a sequence goes a long way toward understanding not only Wick’s appeal but also, perhaps, why the franchise has largely avoided the national debate over gun violence.

Not that some haven’t tried — when “Joker” was criticized in 2019 for potentially inciting violence, its director, Todd Phillips, asked why “Wick” was being held to “different standards” than his movie.

It’s not an unfair question. But if you think of “Wick” as a self-aware Bob Fosse number with guns, rooted in the over-the-top kung fu genre, you might empathize with Stahelski when he says, “I’m no different from ‘Lord of the Rings’ or Jackie Chan or a musical. I’m just here to create an aesthetic.”

‘We Give a Sh*t’: Gun Safety Defines the John Wick Franchise as Much as the Weapons Do (2024)


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