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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

John Wick: Chapter 4 Review

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John Wick Chapter 4 opens in theaters on March 24, 2023 (March 23 in Australia)


From the moment the Baba Yaga first dropped a gold coin in front of Charon at The Continental, the John Wick series established an instantly fascinating mythology: a global chessboard where an archaic code pits those of service to the villainous High Table against those looking to suplex 300-pound bodyguards through that very table. In Chapter 4 of this story, John Wick’s vendetta has forced the Table into open warfare, and it thrives on John’s acceptance of the fact that even he can’t win that war on his own. The rules and consequences the John Wick universe has taken such care to establish provide its fourth chapter a rock-solid structure that allows for director Chad Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves to stage an symphony of onscreen action, with every component driving to elevate the others. It is the longest John Wick movie. It is the most John Wick movie. And it is the best John Wick movie.

An early maneuver on John’s part forces the High Table past the point of no return: Wick must be made an example of, and that task falls to Bill Skarsgård’s very willing Marquis de Gramont. With Skarsgård, the John Wick universe gets its first supervillain. As the High Table’s emissary, he drips entitlement and hypocrisy with each very French-accented word he purrs. In contrast to Chapter 2’s Santino D’Antonio, whose primary leverage over John was personal (an unpaid blood debt), the sadist Marquis wields the authority of the High Table like a dandy Darth Vader, and the cruelties in which he indulges go a long way towards making him an ideal foil to John and his cohorts. The High Table bureaucracy has long hidden behind intermediaries like Winston (Ian McShane) and The Adjudicator, and Skarsgard does a great job of embodying the decadence and rot that permeates the organization with increasing severity the higher up the ladder you go.

John Wick 4: The Cast of the Action Sequel

Chapter 4 firmly cements John Wick as standing shoulder to shoulder with The Matrix’s Neo as part of Keanu Reeves’ nearly unparalleled action hero lineup. The raw-nerved rage of the freshly widowed Wick that wowed in the original movie has progressed into something even more deadly: resolve and focus. Reeves conveys these qualities with practiced restraint, so complete here that the occasional one-liners or subtly raised eyebrow come off as authentic to the character and not beholden to representing any cliches of the genre… sometimes if you bake your cake well enough, you get to eat it, too.

Reeves’ (not to mention Stahelski’s) contributions to The Matrix’s success can’t be overstated, but the Wick films have always felt like more personal celebrations of the actor’s dedication to the craft of highly choreographed action. The pure thrill of seeing John Wick’s continuing battle to reclaim his soul work so well is doubly gratifying when you consider it as the labor of love it clearly is for Reeves.

Of all the excellent additions to the cast, Donnie Yen’s Caine stands apart.


John Wick may be the namesake of the franchise, but his journey has increasingly emphasized the importance of social contracts and shared history. That investment fully blossoms with Chapter 4’s Murderer’s Row of John Wick characters. Winston, Charon (Lance Reddick), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) serve as John’s counsel, and while Reddick and Fishburne’s presence is limited to only a few scenes, their impact is maximized thanks to those performers’ signature gravitas and command of their characters. Despite having shot John off the roof of the Continental at the end of Chapter 3 (something no one’s got any hard feelings over; that’s like accidentally tripping someone in this world) Winston continues in his role as a surrogate father to John, and McShane’s characteristic confidence both bolsters the myth of John Wick and maintains the Continental manager’s reputation of being the smoothest operator in the game.

Of all the excellent new additions to the cast, Donnie Yen’s Caine stands apart. An imposing antagonist introduced as a longtime contemporary of Wick’s, the blind assassin’s reluctance to enforce The Marquis’ orders without question echoes John’s rejection of his own call to “serve and be of service.” That parallel adds a surprising amount of empathy to their encounters, but it doesn’t keep Caine from going after John with everything he has. Yen’s affable demeanor and brutal efficiency give his flavor of the series’ “Gun Fu” a lightness and style all its own, and Caine’s wild ingenuity in battle leads to delightful, laugh-out-loud finishers.

Also in the mix is Shamier Anderson’s unnamed Tracker, an operative who bears the heavy burden of having a dog in a John Wick movie. Tracker’s shifting allegiances, combat skills, and close relationship to his canine companion provide a nice, simmering paranoia for Chapter 4 to employ when a wildcard is needed to spice up Wick’s progress. There’s also Klaus, and I just need to shout that dude out. I know two things about him: he’s a big boy and his name is Klaus. His involvement takes up less time than you’ve spent reading about him here, but I promise he’s both unmissable and unforgettable.

In an age of increased grumbling about films with two-plus-hour runtimes, Chapter 4’s roaring pace serves as a counter argument that proclaims movies should be as long as they need to be. Over the course of three Wick chapters, director Chad Stahelski has developed a keen sense of when to speed John through a room full of heavies with surgical precision and when to let him and those of us watching luxuriate in the carnage he can unleash in more intimate encounters. Stahelski’s attention to detail across every element of the action in Chapter 4 is appreciable, and well-communicated by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch’s script.

I hope you came hungry for neck shots, because you’ll be leaving well-fed.


For instance, it’s established early on that the High Table forces that are now coming after John wear impenetrable body armor from head to toe – which yes, sounds like something out of a video game. But Stahelski pays that off through action, not dialogue, as the armored foes force Wick to adjust his traditional strategy of shooting people in whatever part of their body was asking for it most. I hope you came hungry for neck shots, because you’ll be leaving Chapter 4 well-fed. Similarly, the droll introduction of homemade incendiary rounds is established in a throwaway line of dialogue… one which will very likely instantly resurface in your mind the first time an unlucky thug gets obliterated by one. To call a movie that’s nearly three hours long “economical” may sound contradictory, but nothing established in Chapter 4 goes to waste.

The High Table’s lengthy siege of the Osaka Continental may just be the single best action sequence in the John Wick films to date – and this is a series that has already outdone nearly every other contender in that category. Stahelski balances multiple perspectives on the assault expertly, and sustains the momentum of each character’s efforts through the extended bloodbath. Chapter 3 gave us a taste of what happens when a Continental manager crosses the Table, but as Winston’s counterpart in cool, Hiroyuki Sanada’s Koji Shimazu faces their full wrath with unwavering conviction.

Stahelski uses Shimazu’s relationship with his daughter Akira (Rina Samayawa) to underline what morality looks like in a world full of killers, and Sanada is just as impressive in their tender father-daughter moments as he is with a blade in hand. What makes the Osaka sequence even more satisfying is how it reinforces Chapter 4’s friendship theme: Wick doesn’t try to escape the Table with any great speed or stealth; he’s going for maximum damage, and only because he knows that he’s responsible for bringing this mess to his friend’s doorstep. The action’s close tie to John’s interior condition is wonderfully demonstrated later in a sickeningly stressful chase and fight around the Arc de Triomphe, deployed when John is at his most harried. The most effective action sequences in films also reflect and reinforce character, and Chapter 4 never forgets that.

For a series which has always looked stylish as hell, Chapter 4 sets a new standard for production design and cinematography. Locations across Osaka, Paris, Berlin, and New York have distinctive architectural qualities which allow director of photography Dan Laustsen varied opportunities to wash characters in the series’ iconic candy-colored neon hues. The Osaka Continental’s hyper-modern light installations, Paris’ warm streetlamps, a Manhattan sunset cutting through a story-tall bank of shades in the Marquis’ office all give each movement of the story a quickly readable palette that bestows each city a unique visual identity and makes sure we always know exactly where John is. That’s all complimented by a punchy score from Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard, which traces Chapter 4’s movements from culture to culture and converses with the action in ways that alternatingly emphasize and undercut big moments to great effect.

Verdict

It seemed like an impossible task, but the Baba Yaga has a history of delivering on those: John Wick: Chapter 4 stands above its predecessors – and the past decade’s worth of action films as a whole – as a modern epic, something Keanu Reeves and Chad Stahelski have been driving at since 2014. Wick’s world war is bursting at the seams with creative, thrillingly staged action choreography and cinematography, perfectly pitched performances from an outstanding and unforgettable cast of allies and villains heralded by a merciless Bill Skarsgård, all without losing its grip on the sensitivity that keeps John’s struggle for absolution at the heart of every bullet fired and every edged weapon swung. Slide Chapter 4 a gold coin across the table and see what happens when John Wick lands a perfect shot.

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