John Wick: Chapter 4

John Wick: Chapter 4 ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The question I kept asking myself throughout “John Wick: Chapter 4” is why the man still bothers. Outside of the philosophical sanctity of life, what reason does this widowed, ostracized and spiritually broken killer still have to keep clinging to it with so much resolve? It’s rare that you see someone this ready to die fight so hard to keep on breathing. For almost three hours, Keanu Reeves once again shoves, shoots, and slices people into oblivion for a purpose that has never seemed more elusive. Maybe now that he has unretired and let his violent impulses take over, he can’t stop anymore. It’s a fair question to ask because outside of Reeves’s inherent, reserved likeability as a person, what exactly makes John Wick a protagonist worth rooting for? The question had an obvious answer when we first met him in 2014, because people who hurt puppies and mistreat vintage cars deserve nothing less than having hell on Earth unleashed upon him. But now, the waters are considerably muddier. Yes, it’s still all about revenge, but the stakes haven’t been strictly personal for a while. Wick doesn’t merely take on his own enemies, but the entire system his profession is built on. And if we are invested in the fate of the world that “John Wick” is set in with its unique hotels, currency, and tailoring, it also means that the titular man himself becomes expendable. Which is clearly where the franchise is headed.

What makes Wick’s moral compass even more askew than in the past is his failure to fully consider the collateral damage of his actions. People he cares about die in this film almost from the get-go because of choices he makes. We begin with Wick declaring war on the High Table by killing the sole authority above them, the Elder, who resides somewhere in the desert. In response, they dispatch one of their members, the Marquis de Gramont, to New York to both fire Winston and obliterate his hotel. His concierge Charon, now unemployed, is summarily executed, a scene made even more agonizing given Lance Reddick’s recent passing. Winston, who in the previous film unceremoniously shot Wick to restore the blessing of the High Table on his establishment, switches allegiances again. It’s sometimes hard in this film to keep track of who is on whose side. People rapidly jettison motivations from one scene to the next, even if their core ideals remain consistent. De Gramont blackmails blind assassin Caine into joining his effort to track down and eliminate Wick once and for all. Caine, played by Donnie Yen whom American audiences are most likely to recognize for his also blind role in “Rogue One”, clearly would rather do anything else than be back on the clock. His genuinely apologetic interactions with both Wick, and his old friend Koji, the manager of the Osaka Continental, make him one of the more sympathetic glorified henchmen of the franchise. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him again in a spin-off. I also tremendously enjoyed his fight choreography. Assassins who have to make do without their eyes are not exactly a rarity, but often their disability plays no major role in their gift for beating up foes. Caine clearly has limits. His inability to see his opponents allows them to trick him and he uses tools to detect people in the room and their locations. There is a precision to these movies and their action set pieces almost unheard of in Hollywood mainstream fare and it remains more impressive than ever even a decade in.

Yes, I obviously buried the lede. The stuntwork is once again unreal, even if the escape from the Osaka Continental visually resembles the climax of “John Wick Chapter 3- Parabellum”, the nightclub scene in Berlin is obviously a throwback to the iconic set piece in the character’s very first outing and the absurdly high bounty on Wick’s head that sends every single killer in Paris after the target parallels the grand finale of the second film. I don’t mind that Chad Stahelski & Co. repeatedly make use of the same template and up the ante every time they return to the well, but it was especially noticeable this time around. That doesn’t make the details in them any less spectacular. The shootout within the roundabout of the Arc de Triomphe, during which Wick and his would-be killers keep getting run into by cars, is a standout. A scene involving multiple sets of stairs is destined to become an all-time classic. And there are a few minutes when Wick makes use of a weapon that incinerates his assailants that are shot from the bird’s eye perspective that my fiancée highlighted as her personal favorite. This franchise understands its audience. It gets why people keep showing up, more and more with each new outing in fact. The violence is elegant, but unsanitized. Wick leaves no survivors. Whenever he fights, he shoots to kill and if a gun doesn’t do it, another, less sophisticated method will do the trick. He improvises in the moment, like slicing someone’s neck open with a playing card.

Speaking of which, action specialist Scott Adkins shows up in a fatsuit as the head of the German table, a gross, gambling type, who like Kingpin in the MCU doesn’t initially seem like he’d make for a good fighter but ends up physically overpowering his opponents. There is also a tracker who calls himself Nobody and his loyal emotional support dog, the kind of canine everyone in the movie theatre keeps rooting for even if there may not be a more vicious killer in the entire film. There is so much happening with the supporting characters at any given point that Reeves doesn’t even have to try all that hard anymore. Much has been made of the observation that he says a grand total of 380 words in the film. I will say that it almost seems deliberate at times and there were moments, especially when Reeves interacts with Hiroyuki Sanada, when I really wished Wick had offered more of an explanation for seeking out his help rather than just standing there silently and stoically. There was a time when Wick was more than just a deadly body. Here, he is stripped down to his bare necessities. Perhaps this is the closest he has ever come to his old self, the one he hoped to shed when he married his wife. Maybe he realizes that to an extent and wants to remind himself that he once walked a different path. A more virtuous one that he could never go back to after the gaping hole his wife’s death left in his soul. It’s fitting that he chooses “Loving Husband” as his epitaph. He takes no pride in the life he lived that is soaked in blood. Only the one that arguably died long before he himself did on those stairs in Paris on a morning of a beautiful sunset.

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