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John Wick: Chapter 4


There was probably a point, maybe only a couple of years back, when I’d have embraced this movie in much more unqualified fashion. I considered (and still do) John Wick: Chapter 2 a high point in the series, but I found Chapter 3 – Parabellum, like its overstuffed title, an increasing fatigue, whereby however well-choreographed – or carelessly choreographed, as the case may be – the action was, the determinedly paper-thin motivation (particularly within the scene or set piece itself) was prone to instilling its own perverse lethargy. That’s also writ large in John Wick: Chapter 4, more satisfying as a whole but also more bloated. This is the chief irony of director Chad Stahelski invoking Sergio Leone, who made very little action extraordinarily suspenseful through manipulation of time, (Morricone’s) soundtrack, frame, close-up and long shot. Chad’s a more than competent stylist, but he’s all rudiments by comparison. So yes, it’s a relief that this is the last excursion for Mr Wick.

Winston: How you do anything is how you do everything.

While having no direct bearing on its quality, another reason to have reservations about Chapter 4, and perhaps a key factor in the decision to finish John’s journey here, is its star. Keanu Reeves is, apparently, plea bargaining (or perhaps he has already bargained), suggesting a degree of culpability that forestalls “simply” switching from Black to White Hat (as some others in the Hollywood firmament appear to have done). But conversely, less culpability than those who are no longer walking the (La La) Land. Under such circumstances, it’s difficult to credit that a long-term future on the screen is envisaged for the star. Of course, one might suggest the same for Hollywood as a whole, once the extent of its depravities is held under the spotlight. 

John Wick: My condolences. He was a good man.
Winston: Yes, he was. Taken for our sins.

There’s a running them in the movie that John’s actions have accumulated a surfeit of bad karma, that there’s atonement due in one former or other; he should have stayed out, and the bodies that piled up in the last three movies are all down to him, essentially. Obviously, the actuality is that each person has a choice, be it Winston (Ian McShane) or Shimazu Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada), granting John shelter at the Osaka Continental. Nevertheless, John is the instigator, and we’re under little doubt that he could just keep going, were there any point in doing so (as he is told, the High Table will just replace Bill Skarsgård’s Marquis Vincent de Gramont with someone else willing to prosecute John’s death sentence). Thus, John accepts localised revenge (the Marquis) and death at the gun of a friend/rival who has a better reason to remain alive (Donnie Yen’s Blind Fury assassin Caine, whose daughter is used as leverage to ensure he takes the Wick assignment). 

Caine: They didn’t take them. I gave them.

None of this really has much resonance, because the John Wick movies are determinedly functional. They have been since the relatively raw motivation of bad guys killing his dog in the first one. There’s continual referencing of the appropriate, inevitable nature of John’s ultimate fate (“You are a killer. And it is the killing that gives you purpose”; “You and I left a good life behind a long time ago, my friend”; “None of us can escape who we are”; the only means to achieve “freedom or peace now… is in death”. As such, there’s an invitation to read across a certain fatalistic acceptance from protagonist to star. Killing off the main character is something of a tedious inevitability in movies these days, and Keanu has done his level best to avoid any degree of emotional investment in John over the past few sequels. Which means you’re unlikely to feel much of a pang when he finds he needs to sit down wearily on some steps – not the same ones he repeatedly tumbled down earlier – and no urgency to get up again. Credit to the makers, it’s a smart, subdued exit; they’ve clearly taken their cues from the classy demise of (also plea bargaining) Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. Rather than the risible, raucous routing of Daniel Craig’s 007 in No Time to Die.

Winston: Because there are rules, and without them, we become the animals.

Keanu, pushing 60 and headlining the franchise for just shy of a decade, can be relied upon to do his signature Wick thing here, digging into over-emphasis when he does actually talk that would have been brandished historically as evidence of his limited chops yet is a virtue here. He’s reliable supported by regulars McShane and Larry Fishface, although only the former gets anything interesting to do, handed the meatier scenes with Skarsgård’s ambitious High Tabler. Lance Reddick bows out very early in the proceedings, the main point to note thereof being Reddick, an advocate of the jab and actually 60, dying a week before the movie’s release (I’ve yet to look into whether this is a legit passing, or the circumstances of pro-jab Sam Neill for that matter, but the timing is curious. Nor have I investigated whether Jonathan Majors’ arrest is some form of controlled demolition, given its occurrence at a point when Disney is in the process of spontaneous combustion; since his character is an intended lynchpin of Avengers 5, well…*)

Mr Nobody: I need you to take better care of yourself, John.

Skarsgård’s clearly enjoying himself, and if he isn’t quite a Pennywise, he’s definitely a villain you’re itching to see get his comeuppance. Although, I’ll admit to being more irked by the intractable nature of his right-hand man Chidi (Marko Zaror), a raging brutalist with a seemingly Wick-like ability to avoid any kind of terminal infraction upon his person. At least, until bounty hunter Mr Nobody (Shamier Anderson) sets his dog on Chidi’s goolies. Scott Adkins probably wins performance of the movie, though, instantly – at least, if any casting directors are paying attention – graduating from straight-to-video martial arts to a guy with moves and chops. It took me a minute or two to recognise him, cased as he is in a fat suit and voicing the kind of German accent you’d expect from a Guy Ritchie movie. It’s a smart bit of against-type thinking from Stahelski; I was even unsure if Killa was actually going to get to fight Wick at first, and that would be the whole gag (as it is, Killa proves ludicrously formidable even by the series’ standards, and simply will not stay down, no matter how much punishment he takes).

The Harbinger: We seek the truth. We will endure the consequences.

Also featuring is Clancy Brown, perhaps indicative that Stahelski’s development-hell Highlander remake remains very much in his thoughts (the biggest issue for me is less the doggedly middling quality of the source material, be it on TV or in movies, than mythology that resists making much sense). And, lest you were worried this was it for the Wickiverse, there’s still The Continental series (apparently to feature Mel) and Ballerina (directed by Len Wiseman! His last feature being the execrable Total Recall remake). And never fear, for John Wick himself may continue, if the post-credits scene is any indication, in the form of Rina Sawayama (who better to lead the franchise’s brave new dawn than a pansexual trans woman?)

DJ: If you want the prize, you must finish before sunrise.

Stahelski’s martialling of action is, in my non-expert opinion, less formidable than his former co-director David Leitch. Chad has the positive of avoiding cash-grabs (Hobbs and Shaw being the most egregious), sticking to the “purity” of the Wick brand. He’s also, on the face of it, dealing with fewer dead-star avatars and therefore less CGI and stand-ins (Bullet Train is a delirious smorgasbord of fakery, such that only the third-act pixel power – perhaps purposefully blatantly so – involving the train stands out overtly). Chad favours long takes, which favours the verisimilitude of performers who are actually there, along with clarity of cause and effect, on the one hand. On the other, I do have a problem with multitudes of bad guys who wait in an orderly fashion while Keanu dispatches each in turn; I don’t care so much about the aesthetics of how, Wylie Coyote-like, he avoids survives successive falls, bonnet bouncings, gunshots, stabbings and pummellings, but just in terms of the basics of making a scene tense and exciting, you need to stage the mayhem so it’s less video-game fait accompli and more actual stakes. I know, I’ve become an old fogey that way.

Caine: I need you to get to the top of these steps.

So we get Keanu wielding nunchakus in Japan, with a snazzy glassy gallery shootout. Keanu on a motorbike in Paris, trying to get to the Sacré-Cœur on time. He only actually climbs on the bike after having been repeatedly bonnet bounced during a free-for-all assault on his person across the streets of Paris (this accompanied by a gleeful Warriors homage, complete with the DJ introducing the bounty details and progress of the mission with “Good news, boppers”). There’s an extended, virtuoso “one take” overhead sequence as John progresses through a series of adjacent rooms, taking out anyone in his path. It’s received widespread acclaim, but to poop it a little, I’d argue it’s too overhead, becoming a bit too reminiscent of that ’80s computer game Gauntlet. As opposed to giving off the De Palma vibe it’s probably trying for (think Snake Eyes or Spielberg’s blatant De Palma rip-off in Minority Report). Stahelski probably achieves his intended effect most acutely with John’s final attempt to get to the top of those steps, so as to attend the vital duel before sunrise, his repeated advances knocked back as he takes a tumble down-down-down in most exasperating fashion.

Gravestone: John, loving husband.

John Wick: Chapter 4 looks like it will be another big hit, although whether it can match the $300m+ global of Parabellum remains to be seen (there have been some dramatic tail-offs in box office, post-opening, of late). Ideally, this would have been the third movie and we’d have skipped Parabellum altogether, Also ideally, Chapter 4 would have maintained the general economy of the first two and come in at no more than two hours, rather than Stahelski being determined to top the previous one each time. Eschewing rampant CGI set pieces is commendable, but there are other ways to exhaust your audience. 

Our Score

*Addendum 12/04/23: It seems Lance is not, in fact, dead. So this would be part of drawing attention to the jab by association. Sam’s a White Hat, it seems, and he doesn’t have cancer. So the reported condition is part of the current illusion.

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