‘John Wick’ once killed off Keanu Reeves’ puppy, but now it’s a full-on ‘dog movie’

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 pitbull 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.

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Even with a heap of assassins after him, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) looks out for his loyal pitbull pal in "John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum." (Photo: LIONSGATE)

“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.

Keanu Reeves' title character bonds with a beagle puppy before tragedy strikes in the original "John Wick." (Photo: DAVID LEE/LIONSGATE)

“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.

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