John Wick: Chapter 4

John Wick: Chapter 4 ★★★★

It's been very interesting to see these go from quaint, nearly-DTV origins in terms of narrative and visual ambition (and budget level) into genuinely gorgeous, globe-trotting epics that function as both a pop-broadening blender of decades of genre-style as well as a pure worship monument for the obsessives. All while never losing sight of the impeccable, detail-oriented action craft that made them such a standout nearly a decade ago. It goes without saying that 4 films deep the now baseline stylistic merging being done here is is all as astonishing as ever: bleak/mournful revenge movie tone, gleefully bloodthirsty gun-fu, strangely expansive world-building for how an economy of assassins might operate (including the old samurai-influenced codes of honor and discipline between warriors and literal shadowy masters who surveil and further corrupt them), clean camera movement/cutting of athletic martial arts and stunt craft that would make their Hong Kong and silent era idols proud, and unparalleled production design that merges ancient architecture with neon synth-wave lighting. The forward momentum of it, the attention to motion, to grisly detail... No amount of poor imitators can mute how kinetic, brutal, and expressive the pure craft on display here is in Stahelski's hands.

I still think 2 for me personally is basically perfect and undefeated in how it opted to abstract the first film’s simplistic revenge plot and technical proficiency into something sadder and dreamier, and single-handedly changed the subject of these movies into a stylish Greek myth underworld descent that doubled as a moody rumination and deconstruction of John's savage craft (how exciting it is to watch and how good he is at it) vs. how consistently undermined and exhausted it is by the realization of its never-ending rippling cycle of destruction that he can't escape despite his Herculean efforts to do so. The gruesome abyss is both the painterly allure of the film but also directly entwined with the bodily suffering of increasingly weary John wandering his fatalistic cage like Alain Delon in Le Samourai if he were in a Heroic Bloodshed cartoon. This is an idea obviously very much turned into an overall conceptual throughline for these movies into 3 and 4 and still baked incredibly well into the formal interests of their makers. Over the years I've heard people cry "fatigue" without much acknowledgment that it's definitely part of the point, even if it's a convenient point. But I could definitely feel the idea starting to strain to a bit of a repetitive degree narratively as they try to justify all the ridiculous plate-spinning and escalating hydra dynamics, especially in 3 which functions as the sickest feature-length wheel-spinning I've ever seen someone do. So much minute, physical progress made and literally zero anywhere else, it functionally starts and ends in the exact same place as 2 which is a cool place but can't deny it lost some power just doing it again.

Despite my wariness of what this meant for the future of these movies 4 is probably a close 2nd place just in terms of the sheer scope of and commitment to seeing this idea through in the most delirious way possible. It earns every movie nerd reference it makes including its opening one to Lawrence of Arabia and its late one to Walter Hill, and the big structural ones to Bond and Leone (that central trio dynamic of bounty hunters with respect for each other is basically cribbed wholesale from the Dollars movies right down to the duel) which actually kind of clarified for me what Reeves has been trying to do with his performance in these movies. The vista location work from Jordan to Germany to Japan to France is all jaw-dropping. The mournful way it reuses franchise regulars like Sanada, McShane, and Reddick (RIP) who all moved me at points. Every new character addition to the world works very well: loved Bill Skarsgård's fancy lad bullshit, Rina Sawayama's big boy stabbing climb (and arc that reminded me of one of my favorite scenes in Kill Bill "when you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I'll be waiting"), Shamier Anderson's high-tech western repeater rifle, etc. Especially loved Scott Adkins who chews his nightclub waterfall axe fight like a cross between a Batman crime boss and Sammo Hung, and the God Donnie Yen whose Zatoichi physical antics and turtleneck + sunglasses drip got consistent audible reactions throughout (one dramatic push-in got an involuntarily yelped “OH SHIT!” that was beautiful to see, these movies will never forget where they came from), and whose presence is used in a surprisingly emotional fashion as it goes on. "It's so good to sit with a friend."

Above all else though, c'mon, it's the action. Firing pistols on horseback in the desert, nunchucks resting on the back of Keanu's neck while he reloads, the use of katanas and arrows to get through the bulletproof suits. There are too many minute details to even catalog in a review, and that's before maybe the hardest final 45 minutes in the entire franchise. The roman ruin rave shootout + Lady from Shanghai/Enter the Dragon "reflections of the soul" finale from 2 alone are two of the best setpieces of the last decade and certainly give it a run for its money, but the final interlocking setpiece of this that is almost entirely just the logistics of getting to a church for a flintlock pistols duel at sunrise is unbelievable... The chaotic Frogger level at the Arc de Triumph roundabout (speaking of Melville!), the Hotline Miami dragon's breath shotgun, the most arduous staircase climb since buster Keaton's The Haunted House or The Exorcist, the actual Barry Lyndon duel itself which is so well-timed for dramatic effect (complete with western twangs!) that it actually earned enthusiastic applause at a casual, not-packed noon screening. It's kind of surreal that these exist and are as consistent as they are, and huge credit needs to be given for the sudden course correction taken in the final moments here in terms of the franchise storytelling that was beginning to worry me. When the climb is this beautifully constructed and awe-inspiring it's ok to luxuriate in it (and this movie certainly does that!) but sometimes it's also ok for big movies like this to have an actual ending too.

Full discussion on my podcast SLEAZOIDS.

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