Monday, March 27, 2023

John Wick: Chapter 4. A Review (Review #1700)


I come to John Wick: Chapter 4 without having seen any prior John Wick films. I did get a brief recap to what had come before, so I did not go in blind before seeing Chapter 4. John Wick: Chapter 4 is very long, but I surprisingly did not feel the length often. With some surprisingly innovative sequences, I think John Wick fans will enjoy this latest installment.

With everyone eager to kill formerly retired hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves), Wick seeks out revenge. His killing of an Elder unleashes greater hell, with The High Table (the council that oversees assassins) determined to bring Wick down. This search brings out the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgard), who has been given carte blanche against both Wick and his mentor/friend Winston (Ian McShane). 

The Marquis brings in Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind assassin and frenemy of Wick's to bring Wick down. That requires a bit of doing, as Wick is almost unkillable, the Citizen Kane of assassins if you like. Wick also has loyal friends, such as the Bowery King (Laurence Fishbourne) and Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has been sheltering Wick at the Osaka Continental. Caine has his own motivations for bringing in Wick: his daughter is in danger unless he succeeds in his mission.

Wick and Caine now play this cat-and-mouse game, with a wild card in the form of a Tracker (Shamier Anderson), the deadliest of the myriad of assassins chasing after the growing bounty. Journeys to Berlin lead to Paris, where both John Wick and Caine can be released from their obligations to the High Table via a duel between Wick and the Marquis, with Winston and Caine respectively serving as their seconds. Taking no chances, the Marquis attempts to keep Wick from his appointment at the Sacre Cour Church, leading to mass confrontations and a deadly end.

I have never been interested in the John Wick franchise. I know my pastor has conflicting views on the films: he enjoys them but also finds them "murder porn". Perhaps my own threshold for violence has expanded, or perhaps I was not paying much attention. For me, John Wick: Chapter 4 was not as violent as I thought it would be. 

This is not to say that the film skimps on violence: we do get to see people get axes thrown at them and lots of shooting and killings left right center. However, director Chad Stahelski gives them an almost balletic quality. Almost all of the massive fight and battle sequences are filmed to be close to visually beautiful, aided by excellent production design and cinematography.

For some sequences, the score and music selections made them more memorable. In the Berlin club sequence, Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richards' techno score pushed the fighting and slaughters to be more thrilling, almost poetic. In the fight to get to Sacre Cour, the use of Nowhere to Run and Paint It Black (the latter in French) emphasize the situation while adding to the organized mayhem.

As a side note, it is a pity no one thought to use Get Me to the Church on Time when John fights his way up the summit of Montmartre, but I digress. 

The highlight of Chapter 4's battles is his escape from an onslaught of mercenaries before heading to the Sacred Heart. We get a massive almost uncut overhead shot of Wick, the Tracker and the Marquis' men blasting away hither and yon. The pacing is deliberate, slow enough to give the viewer a bird's-eye view of the massive battle. In a film full of visually splendid fight sequences, one is rather spoiled for choice.

John Wick: Chapter 4 also has nice nods to cinema past. Of particular note is in the beginning, where we get a Lawrence of Arabia callback. That an action film can echo one of the greatest films ever made shows a level of intelligence and craftsmanship that is unexpected and welcome.

The film has strong moments of subtle storytelling, such as when Winston visits the Marquis to offer the challenge for a duel. Both paintings shown prominently in the background (Liberty Leading the People and The Raft of the Medusa) reveal elements about the other characters without being overt.

The film is also blessed with strong and witty dialogue, mostly from McShane's acerbic Winston. After the Marquis accepts the duel (which have benefits for Winston), he calls out to him, "I'm going to miss you when you're gone". Without missing a beat or turning to face him, Winston replies, "I wish I could say the same". 

Almost all the performances were excellent. McShane's dry, self-serving but loyal Winston gives the standout performance, but Skarsgard's sleazy and camp Marquis played the role precisely as it should. Yen also did well as the blind Caine, friend and foe. As for Reeves, one has never accused him of being a great or even good actor. He is more action star and does best in those roles (Speed comes to mind). John Wick: Chapter 4 limits his screen-time to the bare minimum, and it is probably for the best. His line delivery sometimes reads as if he is discovering English for the first time. 

It is a curious thing that if I quibble about something, it is the film's length at two hours and forty-nine minutes. The curious thing is that while the film is long, I cannot find many places where to cut. It is not bloated, but perhaps a bit overweight. 

Grand, visually arresting, giving John Wick fans what they want and a bit more, John Wick: Chapter 4 delivers in this latest entry. Will I see the previous John Wick films? Doubtful, as I still have little interest in them. That being said, I can with few reservations (the violence, the length) offer up Chapter 4 as a strong film. 

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