Review by Tim Robins
With the price on his head ever increasing, legendary hit man John Wick takes his fight against the High Table global as he seeks out the most powerful players in the underworld, from New York to Paris to Japan to Berlin…
I am sure that John Wick: Chapter 4 is better played as a computer game than watched as a film. Spending wo hours and 49 minutes watching a mostly relentless shoot-’em-up across various “levels” left me impressed by the tenacious violence, but exhausted, as stylised fight scene flowed into stylised fight scene, and the score by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard drummed its way into my brain.
I left the cinema only to be told that a friend of 20 years, Stephen Bamford, the manager of Dave’s Comics, Brighton, had unexpectedly died from a fall. It was a juxtaposition of fiction and reality that threw into question any pleasure Wick’s revelling mass carnage had to offer, no matter how well directed.
Like its predecessors, John Wick: Chapter 4 focuses on Keanu Reeves, who plays the titular John Wick, a troubled soul compelled to acts of revenge notoriously triggered by the killing of a dog left to him by his dying wife. Wick epitomises angry masculinity only held in check by an honour code.
Wick barely speaks because he doesn’t have to. We are all supposed to know and accept that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. When he does talk, it’s usually spouting pseudo philosophy that give his acts a mythic dimension, as if he were playing out a preordained destiny, embodied in the “Rules”. Characters are more obsessed with following rules than the characters in the Scream franchise.
In the Wick movies, following the rules is another aspect of the masculine honour code, although we know that they are only there to be broken. There’s an incessant gloss of religiosity, particularly in the film’s settings and names that suggest Wick is trapped in a hell of his own making. I certainly felt the audience was.
The schematic plot is tersely spelt out in brief moments preceding the inevitable violence. I have seen previous entries in the tetralogy but, like many fans that I have spoken to, I can barely remember what happened in them. It helps to know that Wick’s enemies are agents of The High Table, a globe spanning council of crime lords who have a bounty on Wick’s head. In the opening moments of Wick 4, we see Wick ride across the Moroccan desert to kill “The Elder”, who sits above “The Table”. To go much further would ‘spoil’ the world-building twaddle that follows.
Suffice to say, Wick has old allies, foes and missions to fulfil, including joining a Roma crime family so he can challenge a magnificently camp villain, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgard), to a duel which, if Wick wins, will set him free of his obligation to die. Sometimes on Wick’s side is Winston, “The Manager” of a criminal hotel chain, played by Ian McShane whose amazingly time-chiselled features are the antithesis of an Easter Island statue, but have a similar impact.
Returning characters include Donnie Yen as Caine, a blind, retired High Table assassin, now set against Wick to protect his daughter. Laurence Fshburn reprises his role as the Bowery King, Wick-World’s answer to ‘Q’, this time gifting Wick with a Pit Viper pistol and a three piece suit made of kevlar which bestows Wick with a ludicrous amount of immunity to bullets. Throw in Shamier Anderson as anonymous bounty hunter, “Mr Nobody” sic , and his testicle chewing attack dog and there’s more than enough to keep Wick occupied.
The plot structures the set pieces and director Chad Stahelski takes appropriate time to set up the various side missions that keep Wick busy up to the climax. These violent vignettes are formed by locations, character relations and distinct goals. One such scene sees Wick ducking and diving among cars circling the Arc de Triomphe, while his progress and the increasing bounty are announced via a radio station located above the base of the Eiffel Tower.
We’ve just seen the protagonist have a limited time to go from A to B across hostile terrain in 65, but John Wick: Chapter 4 gets it right, even if aspects of this scenario are blatantly lifted from Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) in which a street gang, framed for the murder of a respected gang leader, must escape from the The Bronx to their home turf in Coney Island, their progress being commented on by a DJ.
Speaking of DJs, there’s a wonderfully visceral fight in a brutalist club. Action and adventure movies have long links with athleticism and dance as far back as Rudolf Valentino, although the actual nightclub dancing in John Wick: Chapter 4 may well enter The Hollywood Disco Dancing Hall of Shame. By the way, it is not the case that the enraptured dancers are all unaware of the fight to the death in their midst. Shots clearly show the combatants encircled by terrified party goers, who eventually run screaming from the venue (pay attention, Mr Mark Kermode).
Allusions to past genres can be found throughout the film. When the blind assassin, Caine, opens his musical pocket watch, its chimes cannot help but recall For a Few Dollars More. Indeed, there is a Spaghetti Western vibe throughout the movie, including the climactic duel on the steps of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.
Reeves walks tall in Clint Eastwood shoes. But the film also owes much to the Kung Fu craze of the 1970s. Like the critic Mark Kermode, I was bemused to see the extensive use of nunchucks in a set piece fight that takes place in the Osaka Continental, another of the High Table’s murder hotels. You may remember the anti-ninja backlash that saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles renamed as “Hero Turtles” in the UK; nunchucks are also defined as an offensive weapon and possession is considered a serious criminal offence. These days, the main controversy is over whether nunchucks are even plausible weapons at all, while much of the nonsense around highly ritualistic, Kung-Fu posturing has been debunked by Mixed Martial artists and cage fighting.
There may be no point in bringing a knife to a gunfight, but it helps to bring your mind, and pondering the meaning of it all certainly helps pass the time and enhance the fun. Personally, I’d have cut one fight set-up from the film to bring the film’s running time down by half an hour, and any fight would do, although this seems blasphemy to John Wick fans that I have spoken to.
All that said, I had a lot of fun with this movie, although its relentless violence, however beautifully shot and orchestrated, may get on your wick.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is in cinemas across the UK now. It’s expected to be released on Amazon Prime Video on 23rd May 2023
Features more world-building “twaddle” than you could possibly ever shake a nunchuck at
The travel itinerary of a beleaguered assassin in ‘John Wick 4’
• Conde Naste Traveller – On Location: Chasing John Wick From Osaka to Berlin to Paris
• Variety: ‘John Wick’ Producer Says ‘Chapter 4’ Ending Is ‘Ambiguous’ (Major Spoilers!)
The John Wick franchise will continue in 2024 with the Ana de Armas-starring spinoff, Ballerina, which features Reeves’ assassin in a supporting role. Also in development is a spin-off television series entitled The Continental, which will feature younger versions of several John Wick characters
Categories: Features, Film, Other Worlds, Reviews