'John Wick: Chapter 4' Abandons Vulnerability in Favour of More Blam, Blam, Blam Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Laurence Fishburne, Bill Skarsgård, Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, Rina Sawayama
Published Mar 22, 2023There is a scene in John Wick: Chapter 2 that is pivotal in John Wick's (Keanu Reeves) crusade against the seedy and sprawling underworld council known as the High Table. It's a quietly rhythmic scene depicting Wick's encounter with Gianna D'Antonio (Claudia Gerini), a newly-minted member of the High Table, Wick has been tasked with assassinating so as to satisfy a blood oath. After a terse but electric back-and-forth during where Gianna comes to understand the reasoning behind her assassination, she, viciously morose, slits her wrists, catching Wick off-guard. A puzzled look darkens his eyes — he asks, through furrowed brows, why she would prefer to die by suicide. Gianna tells him that she wishes to control the manner of her death.
"Do you fear damnation, John?" Gianna asks tenderly, not in a mocking manner, which a taunting adversary might take. Not many of his marks demonstrate such affronting control as Gianna does in this scene. It's clear he still considers Gianna a friend, which is why this scene is so subtly delicate and trenchant as a dream. This scene reveals volumes about John, shining soft candlelight onto his soul's workings; it's not often John's tenderness towards his marks is lingered upon with such a delicate hand.
I've been thinking about this scene a lot since watching the fourth instalment of the John Wick series. Such a scene typified a kind of exposition that punctuated the first three films of the Chad Stahelski-directed franchise, but is unfortunately in short supply in John Wick: Chapter 4, which is simultaneously a good and bad thing.
Chapter 4 picks up swiftly after the end of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. John, after having been shot off a building, is recovering and preparing for his revenge against the High Table under the care and stoking ire of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). In the film's first few moments, John commits a heinous act that understandably pisses off the High Table, prompting one of the senior members, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), to send an assassin, Caine (Donnie Yen), after John. What follows is John dealing with the consequences of his action: various battles of wits and of physical strength unfurl and furl again as he tries to shake off the suffocating grasp the High Table has on his life.
It seems almost an understatement to say that Chapter 4 is grand. It's weeping in its scope — not merely geographically, but also technically, sonically, acrobatically. Chapter 4 feels like the apex of growth for Stahelski as a director — the moment of creative achievement the previous three films have been leading up to. Not only is the film visually cohesive with the rich colours of natural landscapes bleeding seamlessly into interior urban settings in a way we haven't seen before in John Wick, it also possesses a physical cadence that is worthy of a Broadway stage.
This film is vibrantly alive with the movement of bodies celebrating the joy of being alive or taking lascivious pleasure in a coup de grâce. Characters seem so organically in tune with the world around them, evidenced by their pleasure in drinking, dancing and fighting through the magnificent world built by the franchise creators.
The action of Chapter 4 refines an ethos that Stahelski (Reeves's former stuntman) finessed in Parabellum. Through kinetic long takes, the director's action scenes become as immediate, lush, alive and ripe as any dramatic scene. Poetically redolent of the noir tropes Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly (and then Michael Jackson) committed to literal dance, Stahelski turns his action into visual sonnets as Reeves tackles John's enemies one by one, killing them with an attentive care and respect that few action stars are able to convey.
Stahelski and Reeves have a keen understanding of how to use action to progress narrative as characters' bodies interact in combat with the same intricacy as dance partners or lovers, with more space and time given to the actors' physicality this time around. As either John or his allies take on High Table henchmen, we can see not only the physical toll it takes on every party to perform such labour continuously — Stahelski stolidly reminds us that these are not superheroes but mere mortals — but also the compounding of their emotions. As Rina Sawayama's Akira — Concierge of the Osaka Continental where her father, Shimazu Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada), is the manager — takes on High Table assassins, one sees in her scowls and hears in her grunts her anger at Wick for endangering her and her father by his appearance.
Aiding the action and narrative is Stahelski's musical selection, which has become more polished and in service to the themes. (Here, there is a score of brassy instrumentals by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard that leans more toward original rollicking as opposed to the clunkier soundtrack in the first film.) Chapter 4 is such a refinement of technical skill that one wonders how Stahelski could top this, but if his trajectory is any indication of his ability to grow and improve as a director, then I have faith that he will find a way to get better.
While John Wick: Chapter 4 is a stunning display of Stahelski's directorial skill, one can't help but feel that something got left behind in all its fiery urgency: Reeves as Wick. The quiet moment I opened this review with is so dear to me for Reeves's aching gravitas. In the scene with Gianna, Reeves says very few words. Indeed, he appears in Gianna's boudoir like the Boogeyman that Wick is known to be. This scene is a masterclass for how Reeves shows us what it looks like to be empathetic in the face of darkness.
These moments demonstrate Reeves's viscerally intuitive prowess as an actor — how with a glint in his soft eyes or a furrow of his brow, he communicates his tragic understanding of unfairness of life. Unfortunately, such scenes are few and far between in Chapter 4. John once again says few words in the film, but, in the fray of all the other complex dynamic and meaty characters the narrative presents us with, he gets lost.
As a result, we miss his measured rage and the quixotic love that sets him aflame and attracts others, moth-like, to him. What has made the character so interesting all these years seems to be muddled within the beautiful chaos of this fourth film. I wish Reeves had been given a similar moment in Chapter 4 as he had with Gianna. Not so much for exposition, but for development. Perhaps, Stahelski thought it would belabour the point if he spent too much time on the workings of John's soul again, but this missing element is what complicates the movie and turns its grandness into a double-edged sword.
Certainly, Reeves continues his physical storytelling in this film, embodying narrative and slouching toward his tragic backstory. In the first three films, there was a clear understanding of the inferno behind Wick's strength, duty, drive and will, but we can see here that he is growing tired. There is a pause after each of his falls and as each bullet sinks into his suit, as if to allow John to catch his breath. This isn't an age-related pause (the in-movie timeline from Chapter 1 to 4 is a matter of weeks, not years), but more so a tiredness and longing that evidences his humanity.
This series always did a stellar job of not turning John Wick into a robotic machine, and Reeves always maintained a depth to this character (really, to every character he's portrayed) that others see as a phantom, a monster or a superhero. But the tenderness, hurt and ache of a classically Reeves-ian performance is what I miss in John Wick: Chapter 4. The film doesn't leave much time to be vulnerable, which is what separated these films from typical action fare in the past. Amidst all the action, one wonders whether Wick still has time to remember his dearly departed Helen and to live enough to keep her memory alive. But then, again, perhaps that's the point. (Cineplex)