As I write this, I can’t help but share my sympathy with the massive and abrupt loss of Lance Reddick right before the release of John Wick Chapter 4. As a viewer, we get to share one last moment with him as his character of the concierge named Charon has been a staple among the core reoccurring cast members. Among the carnage taking place around New York’s Continental (and some in), Reddick has remained composed and stoic, being a friendly reliable face to take care of John’s dog whenever asked. Somehow it’s as if director of the John Wick franchise, Chad Stahelski knew something we all didn’t and chose to honor Reddick’s legacy in real time.
Luckily for us, we get to witness Lance’s screen presence and talent 4 more times in a theater, 1 more time on the small screen and 1 more time hearing his voice in a videogame posthumously.
In the 4-year absence between Parabellum and John Wick Chapter 4, the question on everyone’s mind would be if the consistency could either remain at the same high level, or like previous entries grow exponentially from film to film. The good news for those who may have been skeptical about a 4th entry in a franchise, it’s the latter. Chapter 4 provides the highest level of quality in the action genre, setting a gold standard for any film to follow in its path. Once the film begins with a thunderous boom from returning composers Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard as John Wick (Keanu Reeves) repeatedly punches a block of wood without a wince, the famed line that is now etched in the history books “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m Back” echoes inaudible throughout the theater.
If you remember, the end of Parabellum left off with manager of New York’s Continental, Winston (Ian McShane) shooting John off the roof and leaving him to die. It’s not stated how much time has passed between films however, it’s the Bowery King (Laurence Fishbourne) and his network of homeless assassins who rescue John, nursing him back to good health. And if you remember even further back, the event that got us to this moment began in Chapter 2 when John conducted business on Continental grounds, one of the many rules written and enforced by the ‘high table’ and followed by all assassins and hitmen in this highly stylized universe.
Out of the 4 films this franchise has to offer, Chapter 4 boasts the cleanest and style heavy cinematic experience, offering breathtaking cinematography from Dan Lausten. Shot on locations in the European and Asian countries to keep the globetrotting feel as authentic as possible, Lausten captures the beauty from the different landmarks and cultures, using them as the backdrop for the adrenaline-fueled action sequences.
Add to it intelligent shot selections and steady camera work that gets the most out of each scene. With the extended sequences of pure violent rampages where the body count hits 3 digits easily, there isn’t a shaky cam to be found. Something the John Wick franchise has prided itself on. After all Stahelski is a seasoned stuntman, understanding the necessity to see the visceral action as clearly as possible.
One extended action sequence in particular that features exceptional camera work comes in the latter half of the film. Lausten starts eye level with Wick as he guns down each assassin who are after him for the price on his head with precision speed and accuracy in an enclosed building. Slowly the camera pans upward until an overhead shot paints Chapter 4 as a 2D video game moving through each room and corridor as blasts from the explosive shelled shotgun eviscerate anyone and everyone. It’s just one of the many examples of carefully curated cinematography from Lausten that stands out the most. Another follows Winston with a tracking shot as he walks along a museum that never ends with wall sized portraits and paintings in the background.
Simple, yet effective.
Where the cinematography is best served however comes with the highly stylized hyper-violence. Sequences that are not new to the franchise but with each one, the next feels unique and completely original from the last one. The only bit of criticism I have to offer this magnificent entry is the length. Trimming some of the fat and repetition would make for a tighter wound film. Although given the lengthy runtime of 169 minutes, the length isn’t felt whatsoever. Once you’re in the action, the gas is never let up on nor do you want it to slow down.
The sequences wouldn’t have the impact they do without the flawless stunt work, coordination and choreography. Chapter 4 moves with elegance as a symphony of fists, throwing stars, katana’s and bullets whiz by, catching their target in both the foreground and background. Bodies falling limp all around the frame. The effort from all won’t go unnoticed as it takes a village to pull off this level of excellence.
In front of the camera, it’s all Keanu making the complexities of each stunt look effortless. Since first portraying John Wick nearly a decade ago, Reeves hasn’t lost a step, in fact it looks like he got quicker and more agile. Out of the 5 or so elongated action sequences, Stahelski emphasizes the spectacle in all of them, continuously adding more bodies to the death toll all culminating in a frenzy of twisted metal and flesh.
What has made John Wick a series to keep revisiting 4 times over partly has to do with the ensemble casts that all show off their action abilities, taking some of the weight of Keanu’s shoulders so he doesn’t have to be the only one performing stunts at a high velocity. And with each film, it’s the new assassins that soak up of all of the spotlight from Keanu when their moment comes.
Pushing the plot forward, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) hunts John for breaking the rules. Rules and consequences play a major role in the law and order of this world which further gets more mythological with each installment. Hired to kill John and anyone protecting him is an old friend and high table assassin Caine (Donnie Yen). Subsequently, we’re introduced to another new assassin known as the Tracker / Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson) sharing a friendly love / hate rivalry with Caine for the death of John. Although, Mr. Nobody is only in it for the money, but unlike the hordes of assassins out to collect the bounty in previous films that fail spectacularly, Mr. Nobody is given some narrative heft mostly due to his vicious travelling companion. Maybe he will be the main draw in the next film, or it will be Akira (Rina Sawayama), a reluctant ally of John’s set out on a warpath.
Every scene he’s in, Donnie Yen is a force of nature – out pacing John at every turn. We come for John Wick but its Yen as yet another blind warrior who takes over in grand fashion, making it seem like he’s been here from the start. As the main villain, Skarsgård poses a dangerous threat – don’t let the fashion fool you, Skarsgård’s sadistic thirst for vengeance sets himself up as the best villain the franchise has seen. The stakes in Chapter 4 are at an all time high.
As I mentioned, it takes a village to make a film but in Chapter 4’s case, everyone involved in front and behind the camera are firing on all cylinders. What started off as a revenge film for the death of a puppy, it didn’t take much convincing to witness John obliterate everyone and anyone that got in his way. While some franchises may be losing steam by the 4th entry, John Wick is switching gears and keeping a foot firmly pressed on the gas. There is so much more to be explored when it comes to the high table, the rules and laws set in place and the past that still has a hold on how this world operates.
To get the best experience possible, Chapter 4 deserves to be seen in a high format theater to let the impeccable sound design leave you in awe and the booming score pump your veins with a rush of adrenaline.
Screenplay By: Shay Hatten & Michael Finch
Directed By: Chad Stahelski
Music By: Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård, Laurence Fishburne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shamier Anderson, Lance Riddick, Rina Sawayama, Scott Adkins, Ian McShane
Edited By: Nathan Orloff
Release Date: March 26, 2023
Running Time: 2 Hours 49 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Based On: Characters by Derek Kolstad