John Wick: Chapter 4

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Since the last appearance of John Wick, in 2019, Keanu Reeves has been in a Toy Story movie, a Spongebob movie, a Matrix movie and has voiced Batman in the animation Super Pets. Not bad for someone whose career at first glance alternates insane bursts of activity with lengthy snoozes.

And so to the insanely grandiose John Wick: Chapter 4, another case of not much seeming to happen punctuated with frenzies of excitement. It’s the first film in the sequence not written by Derek Kolstad, who first pitched the idea of a supercool and unstoppable assassin re-entering the fray after his dog is killed in a screenplay originally titled Scorn. Keanu Reeves liked it, signed up and suggested renaming the film after its lead character. Behold, John Wick.

This latest chapter remains true to Kolstad’s vision, but gives us more of it, ladling on the Euro-stylings, the cod-medievalism and the trappings of Catholicism as it follows Wick on a quest to – pauses, thinks a bit, wonders whether the story has any relevance whatsover – face down the High Table, which has put a monster price on his head, and finds himself in a common cause with Winston (Ian McShane), who has now also been declared “excommunicado”. Or, put another way, into one action sequence after another.

In big-screen-movie globetrotting style, Wick now travels the planet, fending off various assassins eager for the bounty on his head, among them the blind martial artist Caine (played by Donnie Yen in a nod to Zatoichi the blind swordsman), Shamier Anderson’s dog-loving tracker Anderson (a nod to Halle Berry’s dog-loving Sofia in the last film) and Marko Zaror’s Chidi, a looming hulk of a man (and, like Yen, a real martial artist – you can tell).

They’ve all been sent on this seek-and-destroy mission by the High Table’s the Marquis de Gramont, a sneering, preening aristo of possibly French extraction, played by Bill Skarsgård with the supercilious air of a man waiting for the call from 007’s people.

Joh Wick in a dark cathedral
A dark cathedral awaits John Wick

New writers Shay Hatten and Michael Finch, and director Chad Stahelski, then pull what is essentially the same trick several times. Long, slow, dark passages of exquisitely styled, dressed, choreographed and lit nothingness – in cathedrals, tunnels, casinos, subway stations – followed by action set pieces done at breathtaking speed in increasingly elaborate locations and serving up death in all its forms, but mostly at the end of a gun or blade. The high point of all this is John Wick drifting a car around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris shooting people dead as he goes before pounding all the way up the steps to Sacré Coeur cathedral, wasting henchmen at a staggering rate.

A large part of the appeal is the almost Old Testament way of dealing death, and the old-school stylings to match. In John Wick’s world they still do things the old way. Typewriters, winking green-screen computers, blackboard and chalk, valve radios and beeswax candles are a visual expression of a plot driven by pseudo-ancient ritual, quasi-religious rites and arcana of a particularly obscure sort.

Talking of the old ways, you’ve got to admire Reeves’s physicality. He’s now nearly 60 and still doing a lot of his stunts himself. He probably shouldn’t – watch Donnie Yen and Hiroyuki Sanada, both about the same age but who do this sort of thing full time. There’s a world of difference.

This is a minor quibble in a film delivering nearly three hours of relentless entertainment and which also doubles as a brilliant advertisement for the sort of go-anywhere, do-anything suits Wick wears. In this instalment it also seems to repel bullets – kevlar inserts, apparently.

Anything else? Yes, forgot to mention that Laurence Fishburne is in it again, booming out lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy but not having much to do apart from that. And at one point John Wick utters the line “Why don’t you just die,” which suggests to me that writers Hatten and Finch have watched Kirill Sokolov’s 2018 Russian film with just that title, a film I heartily recommend if John Wick: Chapter 4’s cartoon-like festival of death has left you hungry for more.

John Wick: Chapter 4 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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