This article by James Clark originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues.
John Wick is back, and he's here to stay. It doesn't matter how many bad guys show up to try to collect on that bounty.
With “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” the titular hitman, played by 54-year-old Keanu Reeves, continues on a blood-soaked hyper-stylized odyssey of revenge: first for his slain dog, then his wrecked car, then his destroyed house, then ... well, honestly it's hard to keep track of exactly what Wick is avenging by this point, or the body count he's racked up in the process.
Though we do know that the franchise has raked in plenty of success at the box office: just a week after it's May 17 release, the third installment in director Chad Stahleski's series took in roughly $181 million, making it even more successful than its two wildly popular prequels 2014's “John Wick,” and 2017's “John Wick: Chapter 2.”
And, more importantly, Reeves' hitman is well on his way to becoming one of the greatest action movie heroes in recent memory. Few (if any) other action flicks have succeeded in creating a mind-blowing avant garde ballet out of a dozen well-dressed gunmen who get shot, choked, or stabbed with a pencil by a pissed off hitman who just wants to return to retirement.
But for all the over-the-top acrobatics, fight sequences, and gun-porn (see: the sommelier), what makes the series so enthralling, especially for the service members and vets in the audience, is that there are some refreshing moments of realism nestled under all of that gun fu. Wrack your brain and try to remember the last time you saw an action hero do a press check during a shootout, clear a jam, or actually, you know, reload, instead of just hip-firing 300 rounds from an M16 nonstop. It's cool, we'll wait.
As it turns out, there's a good reason for the caliber of gun-play in “John Wick.” One of the franchise's secret weapons is a professional three-gun shooter named Taran Butler, who told Task & Purpose he can draw and hit three targets in 0.67 seconds from 10 yards. And if you've watched any of the scores of videos he's uploaded to social media over the years, it's pretty clear that this isn't idle boasting.
A pro shooter who's won a slew of awards in competitive shooting, Butler's been firing away behind the scenes on action films for roughly 15 years, not counting the range time he's spent with Hollywood legends like James Cameron, who Butler said he's been shooting with since 1997.
Chances are, you've seen some of the training footage from his entertainment work: After 2017's “John Wick: Chapter 2,” footage of Reeves training at Taran Tactical Innovations in Simi Valley, California, began making the rounds online.
"Right after that, every actor on the planet wants to come out here and be that," Butler told Task & Purpose. "Because now they can't run around like Eddie Murphy in ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ where he's flinching and freaking out and shooting the gun at the ground."
"You can't look like an ass," he added. "You can't have dopey fight scenes."
Taran Tactical's 20-acre range doubles as a gunsmith and training site. There, a small team, led by Butler, have worked on films ranging from “Miami Vice” and “Avatar” to “Public Enemies,” “Transformers,” and “The Kingdom,” as well as “John Wick: Chapter 2,” and “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.”
It's arguably Butler's work on the last two “John Wick” films that helped bring three-gun shooting to the silver screen. For those not in the know, three-gun involves target shooting and rapid transitions between a pistol, shotgun, and rifle on a timed course. Or, if you want a visual of it, just go back and rewatch the most recent two “John Wick movies,” because it's all over the damn place.
"Clearly, Wick is some kind of 3-gunner from his past somehow," Butler told Task & Purpose.
Butler told Task & Purpose that he will also have a hand in training the actors for the recently-announced “John Wick 4,” and that he also worked with some of the cast on the upcoming Will Smith action movie, “Gemini Man.” So we decided to get the shooting instructors from Taran Tactical on the phone to ask just what it took to train "Baba Yaga" to shoot — and, in turn, make the “John Wick” movies so damn good.
For starters, John Wick is a different kind of action flick
One of the things that makes the “John Wick” series unique in the world of blockbuster action flicks, is that the action part is worked into the film from the ground up.
The “John Wick” franchise is directed by Reeves' former stunt double on “The Matrix,” Chad Stahleski, who co-directed the first “John Wick” alongside David Leitch, another blockbuster stuntman-turned director (“Deadpool,” “Atomic Blonde”), and a producer on the ensuing Wick films. Leitch and Stahleski also run 87-eleven, which provided training, stunt work, facilities, equipment and support for the “John Wick” movies.
On set, the director is typically in charge of overseeing all of the acting, dialogue, plot development and the like, and the action is sometimes siloed and handled separately. In “John Wick,” "they're doing the whole thing, and it's rare that a stuntman is major movie director," Butler told Task & Purpose. "That's why their action is so seamless throughout the movie."
So, how do you get that 'seamless' action?
"People think that you just train the actor, it's over," Butler said. "No, you have to train the actor and his stuntman," which in Keanu Reeve's case is Jackson Spidell.
Then, you have to train the other members of the cast: the good guys, like Lance Reddick who plays the maître d at The Continental, a sprawling network of upscale hotels catering to hitmen; and the villains, like John Wick's rival, Cassian, played by Common.
Plus, all of their stunt doubles, and all of the gun-toting bad guys.
"All the guys you see getting killed by John Wick, they all trained here," said Butler adding that he specifically trains the cast on shooting — there's a whole army of instructors, stunt men and women, and coordinators involved in the series' many other action sequences.
"You're looking at 30-something-odd people," Butler said. "It isn't just Keanu, it's the whole world of John Wick."
It takes months
Training the actors to shoot for “John Wick 3” took place over a six-month period, and to say it was grueling would be an understatement. In Reeves' case, he came out to the range several times each week.
"He'd be up at six in the morning doing jujitsu and martial arts training and knife training, for two to three hours, then he does the horse training for two to three hours, then he drives an hour on his motorcycle to me, with this 60-pound backpack and comes to me at the end of the day and trains for all the gun training," Butler said.
Given the tempo, the actors were sometimes a little worse for wear when they arrived.
"It was rougher this movie for Keanu because the horse training was really exhausting and hard, and you look at some of the videos, and he's got this big wrap on his right hand," Butler told Task & Purpose, adding that while training for a scene in “John Wick 3,” Reeves had "to lean over and shoot underneath the horse's neck with his left hand, and his right hand got ripped open."
"It was like a giant flap — he showed it to me, it flapped open — and he's trying to train quad-loading and shooting with me, with that going on. It was much harder, and he wasn't quite 100%," Butler said. "It's like the end of John Wick. He's exhausted, but he still wins."
This was the same case for Reeves' co-star, Halle Berry, who plays Sophia in “Parabellum,” and brings a pair of war dogs to a gun fight — and wins.
"She's also doing the dog training and the fight training," during “John Wick 3,” despite the fact that "she had three broken ribs through all the training and the shooting," Butler said. "They run them hard. It's not like 'oh, just do a couple moves.' They're training all day."
Train like your character fights: with live rounds
"The reason why we train a lot with live ammo is because in a lot of movies you'll see that the actor is not lined up with the sights of the gun" Butler explained.
If you spend all your time on the range firing rounds that don't actually impact, there's no real incentive to actually learn to aim, and thus practice the fundamentals of marksmanship, all of which add to a more realistic shootout on screen.
"You shoot with live ammo because they will naturally become a good shooter, and will naturally line the sights up at the bad guys, where it's not aiming super low," Butler said. "To make Keanu good, he just has to be good. He has to be real."
It really boils down to one thing: The difference between choreography and training. One is about putting on a show, the other is about learning the skills to do the thing for real.
Joining Butler on the training front is Jade Struck, a 21-year-old shooter who's been working at Taran Tactical for the last three years, and who grew up hunting and shooting on a ranch in Simi Valley. For “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” Struck worked closely with Halle Berry, who played John Wick's ally, Sophia.
"This is the female counterpart to John Wick and this is a huge deal," said Struck, who explained that she kept other action heroines in mind when working with Berry on shooting, from Lara Croft in “Tomb Raider” and Sarah Connor from the “Terminator” franchise to Ripley in “Aliens” and LeeLoo in “The Fifth Element.”
"I really just focused on the heavy hitters, and I said, 'what makes these women unique to their own character,' and really they were just themselves in this time,'" Struck said. "They're fighting for their lives, they're surviving, there's this level of urgency … and they shoot how they shoot."
"Everybody has their own style," Struck explained." It's not so much that they're trying to be stylized, it's that they are just trying to do the job that needs to get done, how they need to do it."
And to do that, the actor just needs to become a shooter.
"Then that way, whenever you pick up a gun, whenever you're in that state, you are yourself," Struck added. "Nothing needs to be forced about it, it just needs to feel natural."
How to reload — every which way
One of the things that stands out with “John Wick” — aside from all these hitmen running around in suits and killing people for gold coins like bespoke-suited pirates — is just how aware the characters are of their ammo count, Wick in particular. He's constantly checking to see if he has rounds, and when he's low, he reloads. That may sound like a no-brainer, but there was a long period of time where action movies involved watching a shirtless hero fire thousands of rounds from a single mag.
"I'd rather have him reload a little too early, rather than have him run a thousand rounds like in ‘Rambo,’" Butler said. "I love ‘Rambo,’ but he had a 30-round mag that killed 10,000 guys in ‘Rambo 3.’ He's got no mags, and he's virtually naked."
That's where “John Wick” is different.
"I taught Keanu to be a great shooter and to be a great shooter, you have to draw fast, reload fast, shoot double taps fast and not be inaccurate," Butler told Task & Purpose.
Shooting with speed and accuracy is all well and good, but it'll be a short fight if you can't reload worth a damn, and that means you need to know how to do it from a range of positions: "standing, kneeling, and prone," Butler said.
You also need to know how to improvise, like "the one part of ‘John Wick 2’ where he has to stick the gun on the side of his leg and reload it, or when he does a press check one-handed — all these different things that make him good."
"He's always taking a mag out and looking to see if there's ammo left and putting it back really quick," he added. "He'll press check a little bit to see if there's still one in the chamber, he's not just running empty."
Then there's quad-loading
"In ‘John Wick 2’ he loaded the shotgun old-school. In ‘John Wick 3,’ I wanted to go quad-loading," Butler said.
Quad-loading is exactly what it sounds like, and involves rapidly sliding four shells into a shotgun's loading port. While it may sound simple, that doesn't make it easy.
"Quad-loading is the fastest way in the world to load a shotgun that isn't a box-fed, magazine-fed shotgun," Butler explained. "It's never been done before in a movie, to have an A-list actor quad-loading the way all the top three gunners in the world do."
Don't forget the 'match saver'
Remember this scene?
"People see that in the movie and go 'what the fuck did he do? But it was cool as shit!' and he does it again in ‘John Wick 3,’" Butler told Task & Purpose. "It's a thing in three-gun called a match saver. It's an extra shell sitting by the ejection port for when you run empty."
The point of the "match saver" is that "you don't have to go to the belt," for more rounds, Butler explained. "In that one scene when he's in the catacombs he's got that guy pinned down against a brick wall struggling and the gun's empty and the guy knows it's empty, then he surprises him by using the match saver, blowing him up, and blood sprays all over the wall."
Speaking of all those reloads — don't skimp on ammo
"I hated movies where they're gearing up and all you see is a bunch of ball ammo," Butler said. "It drives me out of my mind. Then they're shooting bad guys and there's these giant exploding bullet holes, so I made sure we got hollow points there in time."
"Unlike every other movie where they keep shooting the same gun with one mag for half an hour with no extra mags on their body," Butler continued. "Look at how many mags Wick is putting on in ‘John Wick 3.’ He's puts on like six mags for the Combat Master, and four 41-round mags for the MPX."
"He's got mags all over his ass."
If you're outgunned, why not just pick up the bad guys' guns?
In one scene in “John Wick 3,” the titular hitman takes on a horde of bad guys kitted out in full-body armor.
"So he's gotta shoot the helmet, pull the screen up, or shoot under their jaw line, and neckline to kill these guys," Butler said. "You don't want him to wipe out these guys in one-shot, like in the movie ‘Taken,’ where they're all just dead. You want that fight where they keep coming back and it's hard and it's miserable."
It's that desperation that makes the films enjoyable, and John Wick such a badass, because he adapts to the situation: So, there's a ton of bad guys, and you and your buddy are pinned down, outnumbered, and outgunned. Why not even the odds a little and grab any of the 20 rifles laying on the ground? Hmm. Good call.
"One thing that drives me nuts about almost every movie is the lead good guy is in a shootout, and he's got no extra ammo, no extra mags, he just shoots and shoots and shoots, and then he kills bad guys, that are just laying there with ARs and AKs fully loaded with chest rigs and he keeps going," Butler said. "He leaves everything there. It drives me insane."
"You'll notice how Halle and Keanu, once their primary guns are out, guess what, they're grabbing guns off everybody laying everywhere," he continued. "Mags, guns, anything they can get their hands on. They're not stupid. They're trying to survive a massive shootout, so they're gonna use weapons that are there."
And who can forget the patented 'Wick flick?'
While John Wick may be a consummate professional killing machine — and the reason why the R-rating exists — the films are defined by hyper-stylizing everything from action to fashion.
"Keanu does what I call the 'Wick flick' where he flips his gun to the right and the mag goes flying like 20 yards," Butler said. "That was something that he was doing before I met him and I thought it looked cool and I didn't want to undo it."
It makes sense: It's a distinct feature of the character that reminds viewers that he's all about business, but still manages to toss in a bit of flair and style. Plus, it's cool as hell.
Which is really just the “John Wick” saga in a nutshell.
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