“John Wick: Chapter 4” (2023): Such is Life (Review)

· Films & Video Games


There are multiple moments where John Wick: Chapter 4 looks to be setting itself up to underwhelm, disappoint, or settle for less.  Then it defies itself.

The series has grown to the point that it makes order out of consequences, and Chapter 4 traverses four separate continents and the greatest number of intercontinental miles of any film so far.  The size makes it flabbier and occasionally less effective as the story’s attention shifts away from John himself for half the run.  While nothing feels wasted, Chapter 4 has less focus and structure than John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum did, as well as less overall blood splattering and internal organ combustion.  With a lengthy run time, it features three separate stories in succession, with the development belonging to everyone except John Wick himself.

Each John Wick film has been longer than the previous one, but Parabellum was tight and focused for its size.  The consequence of John Wick killing a member of the High Table on Continental grounds was – as the Latin title made clear – an act of war.  It had a countdown, a marshaling of allies and forces and built to a spectacular brawl in the deconsecrated Continental, ending with Winston’s uneasy truce with the Table at John’s expense.  Chapter 4 is looser and no longer concerned with escalation.  As such, it cares more about seeing where John’s war against the Table can be fought and who can fight it than it is about how it affects the world or what it does to John himself.  Good thing too, since just like in the original John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2, there is no nightclub or busy public area in the world that would ever shut down, evacuate, or be disrupted in any way simply because a bunch of people happen to be shooting at each other in the middle of it.

Chapter 4 seems to be aware of the series’ propensity for diminished returns.  It was a big deal in Chapter 2 when the bounty against John Wick was $7M and he was capping everyone who even so much as looked at their phones throughout that film.  Here, at one point, that bounty reaches $40M, yet only one character appears to be in any way affected by it.  That character is probably my new favorite side player in the series other than Winston because of the way his relationships evolve between John and his new opponent, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont.

The Marquis, an enforcer of the High Table given a blank check and a host of stormtroopers and who espouses a kind of total warfare ideal, isn’t as compelling as Viggo Tarasov or the Adjudicator were, but Bill Skarsgård and his baby face characterize him perfectly for this picture.  He has the role of an armchair general, and the entitlement and frustration of a spoiled prince.  He’s less interested in John Wick himself than he is with “the idea of John Wick,” which makes him more of an enemy to Winston than to John himself.  To John, the Marquis is more of a game – the next player, the next level.  To the extent that things build well in Chapter 4, it’s the feud between the Marquis and everyone else rather than him vs. John.  The other characters have become the connective tissue and more representative of the world order than John Wick has; he just has to survive it.  After the prologue, the first major set piece actually features a battle in which John Wick is almost an afterthought where a Continental hotel in Osaka, Japan is defended like it’s a Tokugawa fortress, and where dress jackets and arm bracelets are more bullet proof than body armor and ballistic helmets.  A pair of characters who are slightly overemphasized in the beginning are then awkwardly cast aside, and then an alliance he makes later in the film never materializes the way you might think it would.  But the actual participants in it all prove worthy of it, especially Clancy Brown as the Harbinger.

The John Wick universe is not just a series of movies built like video games, but also an update of film noir where shadowy city life is not chaotic, but frighteningly orderly.  Everyone affiliated with the High Table has a kind of Klan-like title (“the Manager,” “the Elder,” “Adjudicator,” “Harbinger,” etc.) and their own jurisdiction.  They honor and protect them much the way nations do their own sovereign borders, and they accept with cheer the inevitability of the consequences.  In the original film, John Wick was the moral messenger of that world.  You can rob, steal, pillage, burn, maim, kill, plunder, deal drugs, and trespass, but you don’t kill a puppy, and you certainly don’t do it to someone like John Wick, to whom your family owes everything.  In the second film, he became a victim of its politics.  In all of these films, characters on the losing end of a deal or a fight usually never throw away their sense of respect.  They acted like they had obligations far bigger than their survival.  The only one who doesn’t is John himself.  He’s polite not because he needs to be, but because it’s just who he is.  Now his actions and reactions have put the screws on others even more than in Parabellum, and even where he is unwelcome the respect remains.  John himself is more of a visitor, even when he’s piling up enough bodies to double the size of the Thermopylae Wall.

It’s clarity like this that makes John Wick impossible not to root for.  He was always the slasher protagonist, and the slasher villain was always the character I cheered on in horror movies because otherwise I’d have to root for the normal girl, which just feels wrong and icky.  But Chad Stahelski, Keanu Reeves, and everyone else involved with the production of Chapter 4 know exactly how to embrace this aspect of action filmmaking and make it cathartic.  Despite its unfocused episodic structure, many of the small, non-action oriented details pay off, and Reeves goes through it as even more of a silent movie actor than usual.  He has the fewest lines in this film, and somehow in the course of playing up his character’s physical and emotional exhaustion he comes across as having even more energy and vigor than he did in the first film.  Infused with the music and the radio presence of this world’s own Hanoi Hannah, the final 50 minutes of the film has the greatest continuous action in the entire franchise, and maybe one of the best in history.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is not the best sequel to the original masterpiece, but I’ll be replaying and re-watching bits from it for the rest of the year, and probably into the next.  You should too.

– Vivek

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