John Wick: Chapter 4
The 'John Wick' films keep getting bigger and better, with Keanu Reeves joined by martial-arts icon Donnie Yen in this globe-hopping action epic.
March 22, 2023
Almost a quarter-century has passed since Keanu Reeves uttered four iconic words: "I know kung fu". The Matrix's famous phrase was also the entire movie-going world's gain, because watching Reeves unleash martial-arts mayhem is one of cinema's purest pleasures. Notching up their fourth instalment with the obviously titled John Wick: Chapter 4, the John Wick flicks understand this. They couldn't do so better, harder, or in a bloodier fashion, in fact. Directed by Keanu's former stunt double Chad Stahelski, who helped him look like he did indeed know wushu back in the 90s, this assassin saga is built around the thrill of its star doing his violent but stylish best. Of course, The Matrix's Neo didn't just know kung fu, but gun fu — and Jonathan, as The Continental proprietor Winston (Ian McShane, Deadwood: The Movie) still likes to call him, helps turn bullet ballet into one helluva delight again and again (and again and again).
The John Wick movies — the first blasting into cinemas in 2014, John Wick: Chapter 2 hitting the target in 2017, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum shooting straight in 2019, and now this striking four years later — seem like they should be oh-so simple. Slip Keanu into a black suit, let his 90s grunge-style hair frame his face, get him next to an array of dazzling backdrops, let him raise hell against whoever is thrown his way: that's the basic formula. And, wanting nothing more than a quiet life with the dog left to him by his deceased wife, then the pets that've replaced that pooch since, the eponymous Wick doesn't like to overcomplicate anything. Witnessing a John Wick film, though, means seeing how much stunning action choreography, energetic cinematography, lightning-fast editing and stellar production design goes into making these pictures flow so smoothly. Reeves is so in his element that he'll always be remembered as John Wick (and Neo, Bill & Ted's Theodore 'Ted' Logan and Point Break's Johnny Utah), but the John Wick movies are spectacular technical achievements.
All that gun-fu mastery spins through a story — one that is similarly straightforward, but also meticulously constructed to look and play that way. Initially, the happily retired but recently widowed John got dragged back into the hitman life over that aforementioned puppy and a full-hearted quest for revenge. Since then, that move keeps sparking consequences in an action franchise that mixes the western genre's gunslingers and crusades for vengeance, plus their strong, silent types and scenic use of backgrounds, with a musical's rhythm, steps and set pieces. So, Jonathan tried to stay out of the game. Then, he endeavoured to escape the death-for-hire business after its powers-that-be, aka the High Table, started meting out punishment for breaking their rules. Summing up the situation brings another epic crime saga's words to mind: "just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!".
Picking up where its immediate predecessor left off, John Wick: Chapter 4 saddles its namesake with the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård, Barbarian), the High Table's emissary, as his new adversary. After Wick puts the assassin realm's head honchos on notice during an early trip to the Middle East, the series' latest nefarious figure wants rid of him forever, wasting no time laying waste to the few things left that John loves. The Marquis has company, too — seeking a big payday in the case of the mercenary known as Tracker (Shamier Anderson, Son of the South), who has his own devoted dog; and due to a familiar deal with Caine (Donnie Yen, Mulan), a martial-arts whiz who is blind, and an old friend of John. That said, Wick has pals in this clash between the hitman establishment and its workers, which doubles as an eat-the-rich skirmish, including Winston, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, All the Old Knives), and the Osaka Continental's Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada, Bullet Train) and Akira (Rina Sawayama, Turn Up Charlie).
Retaliating against the High Table, and just trying to stay alive, involves jumps to Japan, Berlin and Paris — starting from New York, naturally — and shooting, stabbing, slicing and battling through hotels, nightclubs, apartment blocks and more. In the latter category sits two of the saga's most ambitious locations yet, where two of its most glorious fight scenes take place: the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe and the 222 steps up to Montmartre's Sacré-Coeur Basilica. Indeed, with Stahelski a four-film John Wick veteran, cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Nightmare Alley) up to three, and editor Nathan Orloff (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) dropping in seamlessly as a newcomer, all 169 minutes of John Wick: Chapter 4 is an action marvel. More John Wick has long been a good thing, whether more movies or more in those movies; the last hour here, as Wick and the Marquis' conflict sprawls across Paris, is the franchise's pièce de résistance.
With frenetic frays such a focus, and so expertly and inventively executed — doorbell sensors and bulletproof vests have significant parts, gun fu becomes car fu, and filming flats from above is mesmerising — it'd be easy for anyone new to the ways of John Wick to assume that the plot is secondary. Or, that screenwriters Shay Hatten (returning from Chapter 3) and Michael Finch (American Assassin) have built John Wick: Chapter 4's narrative around the onslaught of carnage, not vice versa. These are lovingly crafted films, however — and layered and thoughtful, as seen when Winston name-drops Ned Kelly and his supposed last words "such is life". The John Wick series is deeply steeped in its own mythology, which swirls around John aka the Baba Yaga, the High Table's workings and love of retro tech, the various Continentals, and all the regulations that underscore the to-ing and fro-ing that leads to such a massive body count, so referencing an IRL figure also steeped in myth is a smart and knowing move. Casting has always worked comparably, drawing upon McShane's Deadwood standing, Lance Reddick's The Wire pedigree, Franco Nero's history as the OG Django in Chapter 2 and Skarsgård's time as Pennywise, for instance.
No one is as immaculately cast in the John Wick universe as Keanu, who continues to invest everything into his stoic-faced character by playing it just right — never adding anything superfluous, never undercooking his performance, and always dancing through the franchise with the weight and agility it needs. Still, Yen is his absolute equal, to zero astonishment given that he's Donnie Yen. Physical feats so fleet that they stand out even in this highly physical flick, charm and wit in spades, pitch-perfect doses of comedy: they're all on show. Yen also delivers a gleaming Point Break nod, and owns John Wick: Chapter 4's debt to Japan's swordplay-heavy Zatoichi pictures (a homage he knows well thanks to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but he's not repeating himself). No matter how a John Wick movie finishes, it ends with viewers wanting more — and this is no exception, including more of Yen as Caine alongside Keanu.
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