Director: Chad Stahelski
Stars: Donnie Yen, Rina Sawayama, Keanu Reeves
At the opening of the second movie in this increasingly lucrative shoot ’em up franchise we’re given a glimmer of what’s in store, and the inspiration that’s powering this engine. John Wick Chapter 2 opens with footage from Buster Keaton’s 1924 classic Sherlock, Jr. projected onto the side of a building. Keaton – a master of slapstick, action and stunt work – writ large for the modern world to see. If the sequels en masse achieve anything it is an earnest reverence for Keaton’s powers to charm and amaze. And the clear ambition to do the same.
Cineaste references are dotted all through John Wick Chapter 4, with brazen nods to Lawrence of Arabia, the Dollars trilogy, not to mention the vast history of Hong Kong cinema. While these tidbits and Easter eggs are there for the taking, they serve a similar purpose to Keaton’s 90-year-old cameo in Chapter 2, plotting the Wick saga in a continuum of all-time great action movies.
Do they belong in such company? Chapter 2, certainly, but part three – Parabellum – stumbled slightly. The world building started to get bogged down in it’s own arcane intricacies, leaving the audience behind. Pushing over the two hour mark, it was the first time one of these felt like a bit of a chore to finish. News that this new entry clips closer to three hours left this viewer struggling to picture why.
The answer seems to be, for its own sake. As is the mandate for these sequels, the only aim is to go bigger, longer, harder. Expanding the Wick universe is taken literally. More globe trotting. The odd side-quest. But mainly staging gunplay in beautiful buildings or outside recognisable tourist spots. But is there any reinvention in John Wick Chapter 4?
Not in terms of plotting. Poor John (Keanu Reeves) is still trying doggedly to free himself from the criminal overworld run by the High Table. This time, newly anointed Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård; a bland recycling of the Alfie Allen character from film one) is the one figuratively twirling his moustache to put John down; Mr. Wick’s destructive antics now seen as an embarrassment to the Table. If that means sending ruthless signals by hobbling John’s friends, so be it. de Gramont employs an old friend of John’s to take him out, a blind assassin named… Caine (Donnie Yen). I still can’t tell if that’s a great joke or a terrible one. Naturally, the Marquis has some unscrupulous leverage over Caine to get him to do his bidding, while John fast finds himself running short of friends, or places to rest.
Reeves takes undue flack over his acting abilities time and again, but as Wick he genuinely doesn’t need to bother. He’s a robotic force this time around with little to drive him but self-preservation. It’s a point that the film draws attention to, placing more dramatic emphasis on Yen’s Caine. As an audience member we’re on John’s side as our gun-happy protagonist, even if he’s working on autopilot. Upping the stakes for his opposition is a smart move to level the playing field and Yen makes his mark on the franchise in style.
Structurally, Chapter 4 amounts to three gigantic set pieces (one per hour) surrounded by more portentous lore and waffle. Each of these tentpole sequences impresses. The most well-rounded and stylish is the first, in Osaka, where avant-pop stylist Rina Sawayama outshines all as concierge to local Continental manager Shimazu (the perennially cool Hiroyuki Sanada). Rina’s lithe Akira is so commanding and expressive that her absence is keenly missed throughout the remainder of the picture. The mid-section is saved wholesale by another isolated performance. VOD stalwart Scott Adkins makes a larger-than-life impression as Berlin sleaze Killa; the first heavy in a long while to genuinely give John a run for his money as they trade body blows. The whole movie gears up to their set-to, opening with Mr. Wick practicing his punches. Some good forethought there, John.
The last contains exemplifies the best and worst tendencies of the series. An exhausting pre-dawn squabble around Paris set to the tunes of W.U.X.I.A. radio (nice), it begins fitfully with an uncanny-valley game of dodgems around the Arc de Triomphe; a tiring and chaotic sequence that stumbles thanks to a constant sense of soupy digital composite. This is more than made up for, however, by a top-down journey through an old apartment building. John Wick has often embraced an influence from video games, but never more-so than here. Briefly packing a shotgun with explosive rounds, Reeves looks like an old school GTA character in a sequence that owes more than a little debt to Minority Report (Spielberg once again proving he’s 20 years ahead of the game).
The flare and skill in these action scenes – the choreography, the stunt work – is what this is all about, ultimately, and Stahelski makes them count. Indeed, this bravura sense of craft and showmanship goes a long way to dispelling the more risible elements (a dog piss gag for the cheap seats represents a series nadir, while John’s immunity to fall damage is getting very silly). But even at it’s most wantonly ridiculous, Chapter 4 keeps such a straight face as to engender its own sense of metatextual comedic self-awareness. There’s no way this isn’t all intended to teeter on the brink of self-parody.
It is too long. Way too long. And putting a post-credits sequence on the end of something this bloated feels, frankly, irritating (especially when it’s as trivial as all post-credits scenes). But Yen, Sawayama and the virtuoso set pieces (mostly) make it all worth it again. Stahelski’s naked reach to create something epic falters. Much as he nods to the classics of old, its unlikely Chapter 4 will join them on the all-time listicles that get polished by the surviving critic outlets every half-decade or so. But the attempt shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s heartening to see action movie creatives trying to carve out a place in the cultural footprint. Something so disposable that can also last. There’s something noble in such efforts, and it raises John Wick up.
Ana de Armas spin-off Ballerina is next up, so at least we can let John rest a little while. There’s plenty here for the fans until then.
RIP Lance Reddick.