starring Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård, Laurence Fishburne
written by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch
directed by Chad Stahelski
by Walter Chaw The John Wick franchise is two things: a fantasy world with rules and consequences for breaking them, and a series of films crafted with extraordinary care and meticulous attention to detail. Both qualities are front and centre in John Wick: Chapter 4 (hereafter John Wick 4), the one allowing the other to be emotionally satisfying, the other allowing the one to be viscerally pleasing. The toast given when its characters drink is literally "Consequences!"--and, of course, our hero always shows up in an impeccably tailored bulletproof suit, 42-Regular. Given that the delicate surface tension of our society's maintenance relies on the decorum of its members, and given the last few years of seeing it all fall to shit before a treasonous wave of deplorables, this franchise is a glossy distillation of an American's dream of justice as the offshoot of morality rather than the promise of it providing smoke for cupidity. There's order in the world; you just aren't allowed to see it. It makes sense in this way that, for all their neo-noir trappings, the John Wick movies are traditional westerns: the great American genre employed to tell the myth of the United States. And it makes sense the eidolon for the better angels of Generation X is the eternally sweet Keanu Reeves, who, even when he's promising to kill everyone like a seen-it-all Sam Peckinpah mercenary, is only doing it because his dog died. Both he and John Wick are essentially simple in a complex world.
The John Wick films have about them a YA novel's interest in world-building, celebrating the separate-but-equal cultural differences of ancient societies in environments that feel steampunk in their nostalgic futurism. Sure, there's a lot of bloodshed and broken bones, but the John Wick universe is almost quaint in its naivety. It privileges neither race nor gender, reducing all transactions to matters of honour, friendship, and single gold pieces as if this were a fairy tale or a pirate story. John Wick 4 leans heavily into the "future is past" gambit by opening with a callout to perhaps the most famous transition in film history. No, not the bone-into-spaceship of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Lawrence blowing out a match in Lawrence of Arabia. Indeed, John Wick 4 is epic (169 minutes worth of epic) in its scope and intimate in its violence--a dream of the world as a John Woo movie where friendship means everything and professionalism is at once hierarchy and currency. It describes a true meritocracy--the concept of which is more antithetical to capitalism than to socialism--that flatters our essential belief that we are good and good is better and better will win out. It's really no wonder that a little vengeance picture like John Wick has become a tetralogy. I liked this latest installment well enough; its exhaustion theme and attention to aging out of the game are welcome with a star pushing 60. And I hope this is it.
I hope this is it because the lore is getting a little heavy. When it gets this heavy, it starts walking the line of self-parody: all the gravid declarations of "INCOMMUNICADO," the bridging shots of tattooed admins in sleeveless vests manning a wired switchboard--the standardized communication tone all undertone and pitched to an anime intensity, even when the stakes are only and ever that everyone is trying to kill John and John is trying to kill everyone back. What you need to know about John Wick 4 is there are four major action set-pieces, and they're varied and fantastic. There's a new villain, the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård), who represents authoritarianism in this universe. He doesn't respect "the rules" and wants to rewrite them according to his whims, which is the greatest sin in these films. An earnest conversation between hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane) and the Marquis takes place in front of Eugène Delacroix's giant painting "Liberty Leading the People," after which Winston remarks, "A warning to tyrants," to the testosterone-smart admiration of us fans in the peanut gallery. John's got the guns, but Winston's got the bullets, amiright? There are two new antagonists for John who play like RPG character types: the Zatoichi-like blind Caine (Donnie Yen), his name referencing both the brother who rose up and the sword-cane he uses as a weapon; and Tracker (Shamier Anderson), who, along with his trusty emotional support killer dog, can find John wherever he is in the world. The former, the one pushing 60, is retired but pulled back into the game by threats to his family, while the latter is driven by the bounty on John's head placed there by the invisible cabal of world leaders "The Table" that make the important decisions.
Approached a certain way, these three characters--the Marquis, Caine, and Tracker--represent temptations for John. Because of his reputation and prowess, he could become authoritarian; because of his sense of loyalty and tragedy, he could blind himself like Oedipus and wander the world like "Kung Fu"'s own Caine (a show that is also referenced in a wrought-iron fire ceremony); or he could return to a life of selling his skills to the highest bidder. What he ultimately chooses is lovely, and I hope it sticks. The first big action set-piece is in an Osakan safehouse run by twilight samurai Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter Akira (Rina Sawayama), who very nearly steals the show in her too-brief amount of screen time. Kevin Kavanaugh's production design is careful to integrate Japanese culture into its future-modern aesthetic, and my fear that this picture would use the deaths of countless Asians to prove the bona fides of a white hero was misplaced. (This segment is home to the best extended use of nunchucks I've ever seen.) The second is set in a German disco, heavy on the water features and anchored by monstrous, gold-grilled villain Killa (Scott Adkins in a fatsuit). It's similar enough to the now-iconic nightclub sequence in the first John Wick that it suffers from the comparison. The third is a remarkable chase/grapple/gunfight in the roundabout circling the Arc de Triomphe, leading to a god's-eye view of a shotgun battle through a decrepit building, and the last, the climax, is a fight up a two-hundred-step stone staircase leading to the Sacré Coeur de Montmartre. It's notable, this fourth and final sequence, for two reasons. The first is a sense of humour otherwise nowhere in evidence to this extent in any of the previous films. The other is that it's set up as an extended tribute to Walter Hill's The Warriors, from resurrecting Lynne Thigpen's DJ character/Greek chorus to using the same needle-drop: Martha Reeves and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run"--updated and tricked-out, but there it is.
Bridging the melees: a distended poker game; a conversation in a dressage arena with sword-wielding women riders that goes tragically unexploited; a long, slow ride through the Paris sewers; and a conversation in a candlelit church between Wick and Caine that cements the relationship these films have with John Woo's oeuvre. But these scenes are, for the most part, what Walter Hill calls "conversations by the campfire," and he hates them for how they bog down the pace of a film, as they do here. (It's worth mentioning that John Wick owes at least a tiny bit to Hill's wildly underseen Bullet to the Head.) At just shy of three hours, John Wick 4 is largely soggy fan service when it's not extraordinary action gags (the plot of a porn movie, if you'll allow the comparison), and I can't imagine the film's effectiveness would have suffered with less puffery to it all. Yet if this is actually the end of the road, the filmmakers have earned a triumphal march--"earned" because these pictures have self-respect in the age of sloppy and shameless, showing up well-dressed to do a job planned with care and executed with precision. They've demonstrated respect for the audience by doing the work of celebrating different cultures for their beauty and strengths, they've paid proper tribute to the great films and directors that came before, and they've done it with a message that society crumbles when we don't see eye-to-eye on honour. And when the storms pass and the meaningless mortal dust settles, friendship and blood are still, in fact, more important than gold.