Film Review – John Wick: Chapter 4
John Wick: Chapter 4
The John Wick series started as a small revenge tale and has grown to become one of the definitive action franchises of the new century. Incorporating muscular hand to hand combat, gun choreography, and awe-inspiring stunts, each entry upped the ante in terms of death-defying acrobatics. Beyond that, it introduced us to a complex world of assassins, diving into the rules and regulations that detailed how they exist and operate. The result was a universe that felt alive – even though it has a body count of ludicrous proportions. And in the spotlight is Keanu Reeves, whose stoic physicality was perfectly suited for our main protagonist. Reeves has had a knack for rejuvenating his career in different ways. With John Wick, he has solidified yet another iconic signature role – standing side by side with the likes of Neo and Theodore “Ted” Logan.
John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023) feels like a culmination of everything the franchise has been building up to. Director Chad Stahelski (with writers Shay Hatten and Michael Finch) have crafted an action film of operatic proportions. While John Wick cuts, shoots, and punches his way through endless bad guys, there is a feeling that time is running out. Life by the gun is a short one, and we sense that Wick feels the toll of his kills overwhelming him. We find him once again on the run by the mysterious organization known as the High Table, who have sent the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) to deal with Wick once and for all. Gramont enlists (aka forces) the help of Caine (Donnie Yen) a blind assassin and friend of Wick to finish the job.
Much like the first installment, the narrative distills all the unnecessary fat to simplify character development. Before, John was motivated by revenge – to get back at those that hurt his family and beloved dog. This time, his focus is even plainer: Survive. Wick goes through a physical and emotional grinder, as he must take on an army of hitmen. The plot is so streamlined – in fact – that the world building gets muddied. We’ve come a long way since Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (the late Lance Reddick) opened the doors of the Continental Hotel for Wick to take refuge. Now, we are taken on a globe-hopping tour – from America, Japan, and France – to meet a swath of allies and enemies. Along the way, we meet Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter Akira (Rina Sawayama) who run the Osaka Continental. There’s also a nameless bounty hunter (Shamier Anderson) who – with his own loyal pup – waits in the wings for the right opportunity (aka price) to enter the fray.
As a character, Wick is the enigma that tosses everything into chaos. Reeves is given even less dialogue than in previous outings, but that turns out to be an advantage. Wick is a product of his actions, which operate against the delicate balance of this universe. Much of the narrative tension involves Wick and his friends facing the consequences of past deeds. Wick knowingly broke the rules, and those decisions must be punished. His character traits resembles something we would see from a classic western. There are parallels that connect him with Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. In A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Eastwood’s character fashioned a piece of armor under his cloak to protect him from gunfire. Here, Wick goes a step further by utilizing a bulletproof suit to cover his face and body.
The reason why we are all here – the reason why the series has gone on for four films – is for the action. In that aspect, John Wick: Chapter 4 gets it oh so right. This is some of the most dazzling, breathless choreography in recent memory. Stahelski is a stunt performer and directs with a clear respect for the craft. His direction is crystal clear, utilizing space and the actors’ physical gifts to amplify every hit, crash, and gunshot. Dan Lausten’s cinematography uses creative lighting techniques to distinguish scenes. During an early fight, lights are fashioned on glass display cases to create cool strobing effects. Another set piece takes place in the middle of a dance club, with waterfalls pouring in from all around. The lighting bounces off the water as it splashes and flows on and around each combatant. The neon-tinged, noir like textures inhabit every space of the frame. For a movie that is this violent and blood soaked, it’s also incredibly beautiful.
Strangely, while action scenes take place in crowded, heavily populated areas, people in the margins appear unfazed by the mayhem. During the nightclub scene, people continue to dance to EDM music, even while Wick is killing people right next to them. When Wick takes on another hoard of would-be killers by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, drivers race by without stopping. If this were real life, the dancers would likely stop and run, and the drivers would hit their brakes or move out of the way. But no, none of them have the time or awareness to care. It’s as though Wick and other assassins are invisible to the outside population, and whenever the two worlds intersect, it’s a mere inconvenience to bystanders. I say this as a good thing. Realism is not a necessary component in action films if we believe in the stakes. In a John Woo film, characters never run out of bullets. Here, dead bodies magically disappear and innocent spectators have no interest in what’s happening in front of them.
The final hour is where Chapter 4 truly makes its mark, structuring scenes that are some of the best the franchise has to offer. A good action flick may have one or two great set pieces. This closes with a series of fantastic scenes back to back to back. Of the many memorable moments, the key sequence involves a shootout in an abandoned building. In an unbroken shot, the camera cranes above the floor looking down, hovering over characters as they weave in and out of rooms. The shot is awe-inspiring in its ambition, making Wick and others look like mice fighting inside of a maze. Understandably, some may argue that this feels too much like a video game. But the concept, design, camera movement, and performances are so jaw droppingly awesome that the argument doesn’t hold much ground. In a movie where the protagonist get shot, punched, kicked, and tossed from tall buildings, believability was never a factor. If this looks like a video game, then it’s the greatest video game ever made.
It’s been said that a great action scene has the same DNA as a great dance number. The staging and choreography create imagery that resonant with an audience. In that way, John Wick: Chapter 4 is a ballet of violence. It understands that action on the big screen, in all its absurdity and commotion, can also be expressionistic. It fires on all cylinders, never cutting corners or taking the easy way out. It takes big swings and never settles for convention. Some may come away feeling drained from it all, but the drive to produce such an over-the-top spectacle cannot be dismissed. The film dares to be great.