This review is dedicated to the memory of Lance Reddick, a formidable actor who gave untold amounts of grace, depth, and gravitas to every appearance, whether in film or television. He and his talents will be missed.
Few are the film franchises that succeed with every additional sequel; not even The Godfather can lay claim to having done so. (Sorry, y’all, but The Godfather Part III will forever stand in the shadow of the greatness of the two that came before it.) The John Wick series is one that has surpassed expectations with every subsequent film, from its humble beginnings as an out-of-nowhere action film upstart to becoming the standard by which modern action movies are judged. Series creator Derek Kolstad, director Chad Stahelski (with David Leitch co-directing the first film), star Keanu Reeves, and a multitude of cast and crew members have spent the last nine years maintaining this franchise’s superb quality, and it doesn’t stop with John Wick: Chapter 4.
The world of the High Table, the Continental hotel chain, John Wick himself, and the rules that bind them together connect and define a darkly violent, mysteriously seductive, and often mystical domain that defies any kind of societal norm. Those associated with this assassin underworld are unencumbered by the trappings of the laws meant for regular people, free to move among the populace and carry out their deeds without one hint of legal trouble. Of course, infractions are dealt with internally, with punishments meted out summarily and quickly. Only two covenants seem to hold sway: No conducting “business” on Continental grounds, and all markers must be honored.
John Wick: Chapter 4 finds its title character (Reeves) still suffering the consequences of having broken both of these rules, living in secret with anyone who dares to offer him safe harbor. It’s said his trajectory has been borne of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, having lost his wife Helen (Bridget Moynihan) to cancer, and he’s blasted his way through the first three: denial, anger, and bargaining. All that’s left is depression and acceptance; his soul is tired, with the peace he massacred entire swaths of gangsters for long left in the dust by the actions that have pinned him as the underworld’s most wanted man. With both the High Table and all of its underlings gunning for him, there aren’t many places for him to hide… and he’s done hiding.
The film’s early scenes only set the stage for what’s to come: John must take the one avenue that might give him even a remote chance in hell of being free of the High Table, the organization that stands above all. An unseen power that calls all the shots and keeps everyone under them in line. We saw hints of how the High Table worked in Chapter 2 and developed further with the presence of the Adjudicator in Chapter 3: Parabellum. Now, after time has passed for John to recover from his injuries and as he embarks on his revenge mission, he has to avoid mercenaries sent by the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), a senior member of the High Table who has taken ownership of the events surrounding the New York Continental and is dealing with them in the gravest fashion.
A full host of characters and motivations keep this 169-minute epic spinning like so many plates, and it’s a wonderful sight to know that Stahelski and company haven’t dropped a single one. John’s former friends and associates either fall by the wayside or are hired to track him down. Martial arts film legend Donnie Yen brightens the film by his very appearance as Caine, a man who doesn’t need sight to find his quarry or ruthlessly dispatch anyone in his path. Caine bears a longtime connection to John, one which he mournfully uses to shadow his prey, but there’s a playfulness to what he’s doing. Likewise, there’s a Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson) who, along with his own dog, is independently tracing John’s steps, waiting for the Marquis de Gramont to quote him the right amount to finish the job. Both of these individuals keep John on his toes with gunfire and multiple fights, but they also serve as his abettors; most of the movie’s fun is watching John dodge these two while having a bit of a gallows-type rapport with them.
Well, as much “fun” as can be allowed. John Wick: Chapter 4 is full of battles and heavy fighting, the kind which would normally break men like John in half and leave the rest for Mr. Nobody’s dog to clean up. There are a lot of moments that call John’s well-being into question; these moments tend to paint him as an invincible Superman of sorts, aided by his tactical two-piece suit (first seen in Chapter 2) and unbelievably lucky bounces off of cars, building outcroppings, and all manner of fall-breaking structures. All of that aside, we’re still here to watch John take care of business. Quite frankly, they’ve saved the best for this installment.
Visually, this film is breathtaking in its scope, from Paris vistas to two unbroken, high-angle shots going room to room while following a gunfight. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography becomes John’s silent partner, showing us the danger waiting while he approaches with firearms at the ready. The respect commanded by the High Table and given by its denizens seeps through to Stahelski’s filmmaking as he asks us to absorb sights such as a long walk in an art gallery to how he and Laustsen frame the many confrontations thrown at John, taking pains to meticulously detail every ounce of work put into the fight choreography and staging. The dichotomy of such beauty being mixed with gratuitous violence demands that the film walk the finest of lines between them, and Stahelski does this with style and a knowing sense of the precarious balance that must be maintained, lest the film fall into being anything less than spectacular.
At the heart of it is John himself, having wended his way through assassins, friends, foes, and those above him. His loss – followed almost immediately by the horrendous slaying of his dog which kicked the whole mess off in the first place – continues to weigh heavy on his heart and soul, and Keanu Reeves steps back into this role with his character’s thoughtfulness and cunning that power this film and the three before it. Without Reeves’ charisma, presence, or physicality, these films do not take flight; in his hands, we are gifted a character unlike any other. Reeves hits the exact notes of solemnity and ferocity necessary to carry this series, and he brings all of his talent and preparation to bear upon this blowout installment.
In the third film, Zero (Mark Dacascos) says to John: “We’re both masters of death, Mr. Wick.” While John is good at what he does, there’s a spirit, a longing that belies his violent past and present. He doesn’t want to do what he does, but he must if he intends to live beyond the High Table, and the draw of the series is accompanying him as he reaches for a chance at his unattainable peace. Watching him work his way out – whether it’s in a house with roving assassins, a German nightclub full of dancers, or on the stairway to the Sacré-Cœur – is almost as much of a grueling effort as the fights themselves, but it’s the hard-fought battle and the way up to the light which makes John Wick: Chapter 4 a smashing triumph.
p.s. I would be remiss to not mention a curious parallel to a 1990 submarine thriller that my wife pointed out to me. Comment below if you catch it.
One of the best reviews of a movie I have read in a while…and yes…John Wick is no ordinary movie and as such deserves such a master piece of a review as this.
Can’t wait to watch it in all its glory.