‘John Wick 4’ roars, soars to new heights of violence, coolness

Images courtesy Lionsgate.

9/10 John Wick: Chapter 4 is a sprawling triumph of decadent, excessive cinema, a flaming, neon capstone for the humble action franchise that could with nothing but a charismatic star, a lot of top-end stuntmen, about 900 gallons of fake blood, blue-collar work ethic and above black-tie style.

New York City- John Wick (Keanu Reeves, who also produces executively), a legendary assassin pulled out of retirement by random acts of violence and blood oaths he thought he’d gotten out of, has committed underworld crimes that have made his life forfeit several times over. The High Table, which governs this league of assassins, has appointed the cowardly Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) to root him out by any means necessary, including going after the Continental hotel managers who might be hiding him. To save them, Wick must go on an odyssey from Paris to Berlin to Osaka, Japan to earn the standing to challenge de Gramont to a duel for amnesty, but he has to fight apparently the entire city of Paris to get there.

The torrid stampede of action-violence rages on. Wick’s roaring rampage of revenge has become a fight for freedom, and the ocean of killers in his way only gets deeper and better-equipped. What seems like one long, long fighting chase scene stretching across multiple films only becomes more extreme in John Wick: Chapter 4.

I’m on record for being partial to John Wick: Chapter 2, a grim, dauer-yet-vibrant heaven and hell film, but Chapter 3 is about celebrating the series’ increasing popularity and budgets by upping the insanity. John Wick: Chapter 4 is an even bigger celebration of an even bigger increase in popularity, and the excesses are astonishing. It doesn’t always make sense and it would be a lot to take in even if it weren’t 169 minutes long, but every second of that runtime flies further off the handle than the last.

One of the many beautiful things about this series is no one thinks they’re getting a sequel, so every plausible, in-budget idea makes it to the screen. Somebody choreographed a “knife snowball fight?” Work that in there, because we may not get another shot. We’ve come up with 100 different ways for John Wick to kill a man? Well, the bad guy now has 100 goons, and we’re going to do all those kills now. Nothing saved, nothing held back, no teasing, all satisfaction.

As the world sinks deeper into “big tent” conspiracies, the iconic Wick fighting chase scenes in which entire major cities at a time seem “in on it” take on a more sinister subtext. In these films, the conspirators really are all around you, well-disguised as everyday people, and the hero’s would-be murderers attack constantly from every angle.

I mean, this is it. Anyone who’s grown tired of modern blockbusters, this is the throwback, neo-noir, practical stunt muscle movie for you. Anyone who thinks modern blockbusters are fine, get yourself to John Wick: Chapter 4 and see what you’ve been missing. It’s an especially fitting point to expand movie tastes, because this isn’t some talkie about lost innocence, it’s an action blockbuster that puts its peers to shame. The only people who do not need to see this movie immediately on the biggest screen available are the faint of heart.

Chapter 4 is the first big-budget John Wick film, and if you go see this in a theater, you will hear immediately where that money went. This movie sounds like a roaring, snarling percussion orchestra, every connecting blow a thunderous thud that makes the theater tremble, the martial artists’ disciplined breath hissing out like blasts from a venemous tea kettle. The series has a wonderful way of screaming to viewers exactly what technical aspects each movie will explore in its cold opens, and Chapter 4 yanks viewers into its world with Wick rhythmically abusing a punching bag, blows clanging like the toll of midnight while the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) quotes the opening of Dante’s “Inferno” at equal length and volume.

Where cinematographer Dan Lausten, on his third Wick project, had focused before on capturing the action and sets simply and effectively, no small trick for this action and these sets, he now explores more attention-grabbing camerawork, seemingly adding themes to familiar sets, such as the slow-motion used in the rainy Berlin nightclub and nowhere else in the film. Chapter 4 plays with film form in a way that the series hasn’t before, with more flourishes behind the camera and no fewer in front of it.

Escalating budgets and technical flourishes fit remarkably well on a series whose story has become primarily one of escalation. After three movies and about 3,000 dead over Wick’s puppy, the High Table might simply have cut its losses, but it won’t. Chapter 4 delves, really for the first time, into the lengths to which the Table will go to enforce its authority, and the penance that was at first inspiring, part of the masculinity and discipline that set Wick apart from the Russian gangsters we first watched him decimate, has slowly rotted into an expression of fear and servitude. This is most effectively expressed by Chapter 4’s new heavy, Caine (Donnie Yen), the blind Wushu master who de Gramont holds more or less as a slave.

The hubris of power manifests in another new antagonist, the tracker (Shamier Anderson), a bounty hunter who serves as Wick’s guardian angel, preventing de Gramont’s forces from killing Wick in order to milk the price on Wick’s head, which he intends to collect eventually, higher. Wick’s crimes are ones of honor, but money is the animating factor allows the Table to set the world against him, and this one independent contractor breaks the entire game by not accepting the listed salary.

The series makes brilliant use of arc words, brilliant in that they’re single words. A lot of movies with catchphrases build up entire sentences – Spider-Man’s iconic “With great power comes great responsibility,” an unwieldy phrase that cuts directly to the point but cues viewers to roll their eyes before the impact lands, springs to mind. In the Wick series, Chapter 2’s “rules” and Chapter 3’s “consequences,” imbued through repetition with the entire meaning and nuance of both films, are swift jabs that land like haymakers. While Chapter 4 is just as accessible to newcomers, it builds on the prior two installments like a stack of cards, and does so easily because it can invoke everything they are with just these words. This final installment stands alone just fine, but makes itself into a tapestry for loyal viewers because it can bring so many themes and nuances to bear so easily.

The John Wick style is so strong, so distinctive and so narrow that it’s a miracle the films didn’t start to overlap before now, and who cares? These are endlessly rewatchable films that are going to age like wine, and Chapter 4 is about celebrating the series’ popularity anyway.

Sadly, in Chapter 4, franchise director/producer Chad Stahelski and company call back too often to their prior work, and the film starts to feel like a greatest hits album. The Continental shootout from the end of Chapter 3 is repeated at the Osaka Continental, including the same full-body armor on the Table soldiers, the same dim green lightning that was intended to make the first fight unique and the same private glass room upstairs with what may be the same samurai armor on display. In Berlin, we have a club shootout with indoor rain that’s remarkably similar to the midpoint shootout of John Wick, and the marathon climactic fight scene that Wick takes through seemingly every inch – and every human – of North Paris is at least a conceptual retread of Chapter 3’s high-octane opening.

None of that means Chapter 4 has nothing new to offer. Dragon’s breath shotgun shells – that’s all I’ll say.

The familiarity of many scenes may seem like a letdown, but again, it fits remarkably well for a story that has become about history repeating itself. As Wick fights off a siege of the Osaka Continental that is almost identical to one of the New York Continental just months prior, both of which are to prevent him personally from quietly retiring, it’d make sense for him to have a little déjà vu.

As he watches the cycle of violence to re-assert control spiral ever further out of control, Wick’s path to defeat de Gramont’s invincible silver spoon is help from his friends, visibly relying on a network of unhoused people and physically and emotionally disabled new allies.

In John Wick, the coup-de-grace, the only final way out, is solidarity.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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