John Wick: Chapter 4 Splays Lifetimes of Genre Cinema Spectacularly across the Screen

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John Wick: Chapter 4 Splays Lifetimes of Genre Cinema Spectacularly across the Screen

Early in John Wick: Chapter 4, our titular Baba Yagaplayed by Keanu Reeves after a decade as a near-mute terminator monk, his monastic frock a fine three-piece bulletproof suit and his tonsure a greased-down mane the color of night—is still in hiding following Chapter 3’s cliffhanger. Of course, an ever-increasing bounty on his head hasn’t stopped him from continuing to murder a lot of people, including the Elder (George Georgiou), who’s not the same Elder from Chapter 3, because, as this new Elder explains, he killed the last guy and took over, as the Elder did before that guy, and the Elder before that guy did to the guy before that guy.

The convoluted hierarchy of the John Wick Murderverse exists only to multiply and grow more convoluted: In Chapter 2, no one sat above the High Table, except for, as introduced in Chapter 3, the Elder, who sits above and also beside it, but apparently has his share of problems. Just as the membership of the High Table is susceptible to sociopathic sibling rivalry (see Chapter 2), there will always be another Elder to kill, another personal war to wage, another henchman to shoot repeatedly in the face. “No one, not even John Wick, can kill everyone,” we hear said in an awed tone. But no, he must kill everyone. This is what we want and this is how this ends, how John Wick can be free: He kills the whole world. 

As such, Chapter 4 would not be a Wick movie without casually retconning the immutable truths of the previous film. It no longer matters that Winston (Ian McShane), manager of the New York Continental Hotel, betrayed “Jonathan” in Chapter 3’s final moments by shooting him off the roof, nor that the High Table’s power was easily proven malleable by one guy with exceptional guns. In Chapter 4, Winston is still punished, the High Table is still vulnerable and all responsibility for cleaning up their mess in New York is abdicated to the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård, typecast as chilling), who intends to wield his endless resources and disposable army of mercenaries to find and kill John Wick once and for all. Why does the High Table just up and decide to fragment its power even further when it’s already weakened? None of this makes much sense, but this is what we want.

Anyway and meanwhile, that aforementioned $14 million bounty grows, which means that John Wick can’t leave his secret warehouse sanctuary, protected by the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, perfect stentorian Virgil), without needing to kill, say, a hot dog vendor who is also an assassin or a tour guide who is also an assassin. Prominent among these also-an-assassins is Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson), exceptional for his love for dogs and his desire—trusty homicidal German Shepherd ever at his side—to help John Wick stay alive so he can artificially inflate the bounty before claiming it. Nobody’s confidence inevitably clashes with the Marquis’ inability to kill John Wick, which also snares the reluctant cooperation of Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind martial arts master (carries a cane) and former close friend turned nemesis of Wick’s (allusion to Biblical Cain), because nuance has no home here.

If Chapter 3 began immediately following Chapter 2, rarely letting up from its video game formula as levels grew more difficult and bad guys became more immune to John Wick’s superpower (murder), then Chapter 4 is the franchise’s most deliberate entry yet. With three movies worth of stakes and worldbuilding behind it, Chad Stahelski’s latest hyper-violent opus is a modern masterpiece of myth-making indulgence and archetypal action cinema. How else to build an IP sequel as testament to the Worldkiller, to the ultimate movie hero as avenging angel, to the desire to gather in large dark rooms to clap for annihilation? 

Stahelski and Reeves know that their movie must inhale genres, superstars, models, singers, Oscar winners and martial arts icons, DTV and prestige alike; consume them and give them space to be sacrificed gloriously to a franchise that values them. Behold Donnie Yen—who feels absolutely at home in the Murderverse—but also Hiroyuki Sanada and Rina Sawayama and Clancy Brown and Scott Adkins, the latter given a lengthy neck-snapping set piece that’s both scene-chewing madness and an expected physical display from Adkins. It’s all patient and omnivorous and beyond ridiculous. Stahelski wields bodies to push them to god-like ends. This is what we want.

Adkins wears a fat suit to play cackling gangster Killa, and rather than come off as an offensive  punchline, the bait-and-switch (Adkins burying his Adonis body beneath rubber) operates as a subversion, playing off expectations about villains like this in movies like this to drive them skull-first into the ground. It’s incredible, matched only by the ambush on the Tokyo Continental to come before, as well as by the staircase fight prior to the duel at the Sacré-Cœur, as well as by the actual duel at the Sacré-Cœur, every action scene in superposition between transcending the action scene to come before and making the action scene to come next feel better in retrospect. 

It’s futile to claim that Stahelski intuits the geography of an action scene, because he’s pretty much surpassed that at this point. Now exists only the urge to redefine, to attempt to cast a new neon language to the popular font of kinetic filmmaking—or to just pull it all down and build something new.

Shout out to Kevin Kavanaugh’s production design, as vital to translating the luxuriously upsetting tone of the Wick films as Reeves’ relentless athleticism. Inside Kavanaugh’s labyrinth of expensive mirrors and gratuitous décor, the body has infinite space to break and shatter. Countless reviews and interviews mention Sergio Leone in regards to Chapter 4’s many influences, and the Italian filmmaker’s presence would be undeniable even if Reeves and Stahelski hadn’t mentioned him themselves. Look to the initial fight scene between Caine and Wick, a showdown perforated with long silences and standoffs punctuated in epochs. Now-regular Wick cinematographer Dan Laustsen captures the two men always as they relate to one another, not only to map the scene for the viewer, but to hem our protagonist in, framing Wick in the background between Caine’s hand and hip in the foreground as he reaches for his gun. Later, in a pause from the chaos, Caine finds John praying to his dead wife, Helen. The two have just smashed through centuries of art and invaluable cultural detritus displayed in the Tokyo Continental’s hallowed halls, literally destroying swaths of Japanese history. Breathing heavily, taking a cursory moment to speak to his former friend, Caine admonishes the laconic protagonist, “The dead are gone, only the living matter.”

It can be difficult, despite the gleeful mayhem, to not wonder about all the spent lives on screen, to consider the endgame. What is left to murder for? In Chapter 3, Wick says that he must survive to “remember her.” Is there any point in remembering when you’ve killed everyone who could ever make that memory count?

There will always be another chapter to find out, another batch of action tropes to indulge. There are lifetimes of genre cinema splayed spectacularly all over the screen, platoons of men using their suit jackets as shields because they are bulletproof—a commonality among this murderer’s class established in Chapter 3, now irrefutable and unquestioned canon. The lore grows deeper as Wick becomes muter. If you haven’t seen the previous films, you will undoubtedly have no idea what’s going on, but it doesn’t matter. In my screening, people clapped for every major kill, locked in for three straight hours, because why wouldn’t they? Everything on screen is stupendous. This is what we want, to watch John Wick murder the whole world, forever and ever amen.

Director: Chad Stahelski
Writers: Michael Finch, Shay Hatten
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Ian McShane, Bill Skarsgård, Shamier Anderson, Clancy Brown, Laurence Fishburne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rina Sawayama, Lance Reddick, Scott Adkins
Release Date: March 24, 2023

Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. He writes a weekly blog on Werner Herzog movies, The Werner Herzblog. He’s also on Twitter.

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