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Confession time: Before learning to love John Wick, I was pretty worried about him. But not because his penchant for cool, over-the-top vengeance gets him into various deadly predicaments.
No, I was more concerned about his puppy.
The action-movie franchise, which unleashes “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” in theaters this Friday, is built on a foundation of expansive hitman mythology, sprawling brawls and insane chase sequences. It's a bloody path wrought in the first neo-noir flick when a bunch of goons murdered a little beagle gifted to Keanu Reeves’ title character by his dead wife (Bridget Moynahan).
No one in the action canon has more misfortune than Wick, though he does rescue a pit bull about to be euthanized in the original 2014 movie that sticks with him through the 2017 sequel and the new film. And this entry is pretty much a pooch-filled extravaganza with the introduction of Halle Berry’s assassin Sofia and her two battle-ready Malinois.
“We are a dog movie, so we had to give a real tribute to our canine friends,” says director Chad Stahelski.
Yes, at this point, the “Wick” movies are more than just action vehicles for a well-dressed Reeves. But while like many action fans, I can watch him kill a dude with a library book all day or throw enough knives to make his foes Swiss cheese, for fellow animal lovers like myself (a dog father to two Boston terriers), that first movie was a really hard sell.
I eventually watched the first “Wick,” stomach in knots knowing this guy’s puppy was going to exit in a bad way, but actually found him a much more relatable guy because of his loss. Wick is a seriously bad man with karma paying him back in spades for a career of severed appendages and coordinated kills, but after seeing his dog die, you’re with him every punch, kick and gunshot to the head from then on, three movies and counting.
"Immediately, that chance of being the person his wife wanted him to be was ripped from him," David Leitch, who co-directed the first "Wick" with Stahelski, told USA TODAY in 2014. "After that, he becomes the monster he was before, the antihero we like to watch in these kinds of movies."
Back in the day, Stahelski says he and Leitch didn’t know they had “a dog lover’s film” on their hands. But afterward they saw the pitbull as a talisman, to “keep the emotional connection and the symbolism of the puppy really just (being) the avatar for his wife and love and the grief that he felt.”
Mainly, though, “any excuse to put dogs in a movie was cool with us,” Stahelski says. “Everyone I know owns a pet, and for some reason in action movies, nobody owns a pet.” (One exception to that rule: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s parakeet-keeping Russian cop in "Red Heat.”)
Stahelski wanted to give the movie its heart by showing Wick awkwardly trying to befriend a dog, rather than throwing in another love interest or a secret child. “We’re just going to watch this guy in real time bond with this animal," he says.
Like many who watched that first film, "I couldn't blame Wick for raining hellfire down on the people who killed his pup," says Crystal Dunn, vice president of the pit bull advocacy group Love-A-Bull. "But when he rescues the pit bull, the symbolism is amplified. While the beagle's death represents the loss of what was left of Wick's old life, the pit bull is his fresh start."
Dunn adds that one of the best things about the "John Wick" movies is how they show pit bulls in a positive light. "He ends up serving as a protector for an animal a lot people would rather see dead. Of course, Wick understands that just because you've been through some bad things, it doesn't mean you're bad."
Stahelski is “very, very aware” of fellow dog lovers in the audience when filming, like doing a harrowing "Chapter 3" scene where one of Sofia’s action canines is put in harm’s way. “I go home every day to my two puppies and that's a big motivator. You don't have to fake that emotion,” says the filmmaker, whose pets Koa and Lady are “off-the-street, little ratty rescues.”
The director also has a couple of feline friends at home, so he made Wick’s major "Chapter 3" villain," a kung fu sushi chef named Zero (Mark Dacascos), a cat person. “I couldn't leave out the household,” Stahelski says.
Relative to the previous two “Wick” movies, “Chapter 3” is a zoo. The film includes a bunch of horses, including one Reeves rides going 35 mph while being chased by a motorcycle through Brooklyn, plus the carrier pigeons of underworld lord the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne).
Not making the cut this time? The idea of Continental Hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane) sending messages by raven. He’ll have to wait for “Chapter 4.” “We'll see what we can do,” Stahelski quips. “Maybe bring in the boa constrictor.”
As long as it stays away from the dogs, we’re cool. I came clean to Stahelski about how I initially rebuffed the first “Wick” because of the revenge-provoking puppy death, and he says it’s been a worry every film since.
“Everybody always asks me, ‘Did you kill a dog (this time)?’ ” Stahelski says with a laugh. “My answer is always the same: You get one of those a career. I've burned my option there.”
Contributing: Bryan Alexander
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'John Wick' once killed off Keanu Reeves' puppy, but now it's a full-on 'dog movie'