Stars: Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgard, Laurene Fishburne, Ian McShane, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rina Sawayama, Clancy Brown & Scott Adkins.
Director: Chad Stahelski
Review by Damocles.
This finale is too much of a good thing, which is why I left the cinema tired.
The John Wick franchise is arguably one of the greatest action series ever committed to film. It’s stylish, classy, beautifully shot and the action set pieces and stunt work is on a level that is technically difficult to beat.
But to me, the series has always been a technical showpiece for stunt work and excellent choreography. To me, the first film was the peak of the franchise, because it had the most emotional heart in its story. The subsequent sequels lack this emotional hook that made me invested in the actual protagonist.
The series relies a bit too heavily on Keanu’s inherent goodness, to make you care about the actual character. Yes, his expressions and sad eyes do a lot to convey hidden pain, but more is needed to justify a character who has seemingly deserved 4 movies made about him and his mythology.
The problem with John Wick is that he lacks meaningful dialogue, nor are there enough flashback scenes to Wick and his wife actually spending time together and his actions, beyond shooting, kicking, throwing and punching … do little else to describe his character.
Combine all of this and, whilst you get to witness an extremely deadly and competent assassin go to work over hundreds of killers, you really don’t get a sense of his motivations nor why he continues down his destructive path.
John Wick Chapter 4 doesn’t really address these problems. But the formula has worked for the past 3 films, so it makes little sense to change it now. That being said, it is a very unique film in its structure though, split across 3 diverse locations that emphasizes the long action sequences to follow. It is a film that let the action sequences shine, and for my own personal taste, shine a bit too long.
Chapter 4’s main strength and weaknesses are its action set pieces. They are undeniably cool, frantic, adrenaline inducing and cinematic. The backdrops that John kills his way through are some of the best set designs I’ve seen in a film, in a very long time. Osaka, Berlin and Paris. All these three locations are given huge amount of character.
Osaka features stunning designs that perfect encapsulates why Japan is a country that has both feet in the past and the future. Thematically, Osaka is perfectly represented in the Osaka Continental hotel. The use of reds, cherry blossoms, dark sleek materials and slick Japanese presentation was a feast on the eyes and highlights why the Japanese unique aesthetic is so arresting no matter the way it is shown.
Berlin, with its grimy, grunge aesthetic is another brilliant example of set design done right. The nightclub is a brilliant ode to Berlin’s rich history of indulging in dark, weird fetishes, and its birthplace for electronic music. The water effects, lighting, bizarre industrial design and overall atmosphere is brilliant touch, a necessity, as it injects some energy in the second act of the film.
The final location, Paris, is all class and all dirt. The way how the film plays with how romantic yet rundown Paris is, is also another credit to the location scout. The use of the radio DJ, along with the general look of all the killers trying to take down John Wick, shows how grimy Paris has always been, but it is undeniably propped up by its’ marketing potential as the City of Lights. The juxtaposition between the wealth of the villain, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont and the dirty grubbiness of the city is just a perfect way to highlight Paris as a city. Grubby yes, but still holding onto her old school romantic ways.
In many ways, Chad Stahelski’s most underrated aspect as a director, is his homage to old Bond films, in the context of location. He always let the city shine, whenever Wick visits a new location. He sets them up, to be glamorous and exotic locales, filmed in a way that actually makes you want to visit the cities. This was one of the best part about the old Bond films, allowing audiences to acquaint themselves with the location the character is in and feel a bit of wanderlust.
That was easily my favourite part about this film, seeing Wick traverse through the cities he found himself in and really getting a feel for the locations.
Moving on from the sets though, from an action standpoint, Chapter 4 easily has the most painful, extravagant and bombastic action sequences in the franchise. From nunchucks, Dragon’s Breath shotguns, Pit Vipers with 20 round magazines, classic samurai duels, and even the classic K9 unit dog, a Belgian Malinois, Chapter 4 brings every conceivable new and fun way to kill people that haven’t been seen in the franchise previously.
It also expands on the in-universe lore, about bulletproof suits, the fascinating criminal underworld with regards to the High Table and the families that move within those shadows.
Every single action set piece is filmed beautifully steadily. They are your classic Hong Kong wide shots that allow the actors and stunt performers to really sell every single hit, every single bullet and every single injury. Keanu, despite pushing 58, still moves admirably well throughout the film, and there were many moments, especially concerning cars and high falls, where I noticeably winced at some of the hard hits that Keanu or his stunt team took for the movie.
However, it is Donnie Yen, as the blind assassin, Caine, that truly steals the show with his incredible speed and performance. His presence in the film is a wonderful touch that adds some much-needed flair and charisma in a predominantly dark and serious world and Caine proves to be every bit as deadly, skilled and fun to watch on-screen as John Wick, no small feat, considering how quickly he is introduced and injected in the world of assassins.
Other standout points include Hiroyuki Sanada whose gravitas and old-school nature as a Samurai elevates the Osaka sequence, the scene stealing performance from Scott Adkins, in an almost unrecognisable state as Killa Harkan, whose card tricks are only matched by Adkins’ trademarked kicks, Marko Zaror as Chidi, the lead henchman whose screen presence was actually beautifully sinister and the villain himself, Bill Skarsgard whose wardrobe was enviable, attitude was questionable and whose comeuppance was richly deserved.
Visually, John Wick 4 stands even taller than the previous three entries. The use of light, camera sweeps and wide angles, means that from a cinematography perspective, it is rich, stylish and arresting. Every single city gets its highlight moment and the decision to marry Chad Stahleski’s already cool ideas for the John Wick universe with long time Del Toro collaborater, Dan Laustsen, means that the world is heightened even further on the lens. It seems that Laustsen really hit his groove with this final movie, as his work in the previous two films, 2 and 3 respectively whilst good, lacked the sheer visual panache of 4.
To add to this visual treat, long time composer duo for the franchise, Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richards, bring back the usual motifs and theme that have been with the series since the first film. Their work is as solid as ever, but I must praise Le Castle Vania for bringing new iconic EDM tracks. I missed his work in the third film, and was extremely happy to hear his compositions again, against the backdrop of John Wick’s gunfire ballet. His EP, Himmel und Holle, has four incredible tracks that really prove why John Wick is so addicting when it comes to action scenes. The thumping rhythms and pulsing beats are literally the perfect marriage for the gun-fu shenanigans.
Overall, John Wick Chapter 4 is a fitting end for the beloved Baba Yaga and an action spectacle. The cinematography is stellar, the fights and stunts intense and insane and hopefully the success of this franchise will put an end to the shaky-cam aesthetic (or lack thereof) in future action films. Keanu Reeves has set the new precedent for action heroes …. put in the work, do your best to replace the stunt-man where you can and the audience will reward you.
Go see this movie, but definitely expect to come out a little bit exhausted, because it does overstay its welcome.
A scene to recall: The cinematographer really loved Japan. The combination of set design, camera moves and aesthetics …. meant that Osaka stood out for its sheer visual arrestment and beauty.