What a glorious aspect of the thrill and skill of cinema that eight years after George Miller delivered one of the best action experiences of all time: Mad Max: Fury Road, director Chad Stahaleski and star Keanu Reeves follow in the Australian master’s chrome-laced footsteps with their own fourth installment that dispenses with the previous entries as fast as, well, a kill shot to the head. Studied, thoughtful, action-packed, and as good as American movies get, John Wick: Chapter 4 will be unpacked, re-watched, and, yes, memed in the years to come. All hail, the Baba Yaga!
Set a mere month after the events of the only named previous entry: Parabellum, John Wick (Reeves) is still searching and killing for a way out of being Ex-Communicado. But one of the reigning chairs at The High Table Marquis has other plans. Played by Bill Skarsgård in yet another role that relishes the actor’s particular brand of Cheshire Cat grins, his goal is no short of making Wick a statement for any house that gives him sanctuary. Wick’s pesky knack for not dying, day-by-day, blow-by-blow, weakens the system at large of hired assassins and other decent, hard-working killers.
Beyond upping the reward for killing Wick to $12 million (and rising), it’s time to bring in the big guns… again. This time, the main adversary for John is an old friend, Caine (the masterful Donnie Yen), a swordsman, gunman, and professional with anything he can get his hands on to snuff the life out of you type of guy. And he’s blind, recalling his role in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, let alone martial arts films of the past. The Force may or may not be with Caine, but his kinetic motions certainly signal something beyond mere ordinary human skills – plus, watch out for his use with motion alarms.
The formula for a John Wick film remains the same: Reverse Terminator. Everyone, it seems, with guns, martial arts, and knives, is out to kill a seemingly unkillable killing machine…er… man. The series started with Wick’s pup being murdered by that dullard from Game of Thrones, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), and has upped the ante via the control of non-skilled fighters and the hundreds of those hired with skills beyond skills. That balance has worked well in the past, pitting Wick with assassins played by Ruby Rose, Common, and Mark Dacascos while reuniting him with Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne, along with Halley Berry (and those dogs!). Chapter 4 has finally found in Yen and Skarsgård the perfect and best pairing.
While the fight scenes are the best I’ve seen in American cinema in decades (including a club scene, a showdown in Tokyo, and perhaps the most stairs ever to climb), it’s always been a little less engaging not being very invested in the rather snotty, overly confident main baddies that pull the strings via offers from those cool, tatted 50s style telephone pool of women. The John Wick universe provides a memorable balance between old and new akin to the art direction director Alex Proyas’ team filled the screen with in the 90s sci-fi tale Dark City. The cinematography for Chapter 4 by Dan Austen (Nightmare Alley) is simply stunning. Colorful and gunmetal cool. Staging is key when these films avoid and dispatch killers between glass, concrete, and dirt. The sense of verticality with danger from above and below is never confusing and all the more thrilling. Like Fury Road, Chapter 4 often feels like the action explored is new, never pushed as far as this until now.
Speaking of new, one of the best aspects of the series is how the tangibility of the gun-fu is matched with high-tech gear. Faceless baddies are armored to the hilt with hardcore helmets and bulletproof vests. (Imagine any shootout where Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake bullet sponges twenty soldiers: same deal.) Yet we don’t really want Reeves, Yen, and other people that kick butt, including Shamier Anderson as a tracker with a lovable and tough pooch to cover their faces. It turns out it’s no longer just John who has a slick suit that is also Kevlar-ready. Is this at all believable? I mean, this a world where innocent people never get friendly fired, so bulletproof Armani suits are not the place to start nitpicking, right?
This is the first 10 I’ve awarded a film at We Live Entertainment. I regret nothing. I’d only like to note that a 10/10 is more “masterpiece” to me than “perfect,” as no film is. As much as I love this film, would I have liked the inclusion of more women as fighters or central to the plot? Sure, J-pop star Rina Swaayama has an incredible fight scene in Tokyo in the film’s first act, but sadly, that’s about it for women making with the murdering. Honestly though, that’s my only caveat, having seen the film only once.
Even the film’s nearly three-hour run time is earned. Yes, there is downtime (even Fury Road did), but those moments when Wick needs to hide out or just chill are no less engaging. Reeves’ physicality as a performer has never been in question (Matrix films, Speed, Point Break, etc.). Still, his mannerisms and “man of few words” nature, a la Eastwood Man With No Name vibe, remain understated in a series that’s sound design is as booming as each cracked concrete or falling bullet shell. In short: will John Wick: Chapter 4 be topped this year? Your move, Ethan Hunt…