What is most striking about JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4, and JW:C4 is a very striking film, is how emotionally engaging it is as is goes about the business of filling the screen to bursting with gloriously choreographed, ultra-violent action sequences. What in other films of this ilk would provide a paper-thin motivation for its protagonists and an excuse for mayhem comes across with a counter-intuitive tenderness that belies the corpses with which its scenery is littered.
Then again, this is a franchise of contradictions executed with a deft touch so that they are yin and yang rather than ridiculous plot holes or cheap exposition. It starts with Mr. Wick, himself (Keanu Reeves), the grieving widower who returned to the shadowy underworld after his beloved wife was died and the puppy she left him met a bad end. Sure, John Wick has a kill count in the low four figures (at least) by the time this installment commences, but he’s proved himself a man of deep, even refined, feelings and, most of all, a man of honor. That makes him a hero, even in that shadowy underworld governed by The High Table, which runs it with rules and consequences.
Alas, there are no second chances in that milieu, as Winston (Ian McShane) discovers at the beginning of chapter 4, when the Harbinger (Clancy Brown) arrives at the New York Continental hotel he manages, aka the consecrated ground where those Under The High Table reside in safety when in the Big Apple. Winston’s transgressions concerning Wick have rendered him excommunicado, and his hotel rendered rubble. It helps to have seen the first three films to understand the particulars of those transgressions, but the palpable loyalty lurking beneath the elegant sang froid of Winston and his Concierge, Charon (the always tantalizingly mysterious Lance Reddick) encapsulate the state of affairs with admirable concision.
The Harbinger may be the messenger, but it is The Marquis (Bill Skarsgård) who is the agent, given free reign (and an unlimited budget) by The High Table in order to rid the world of John Wick once and for all. A sneering, dandified young man given to frock coats, sweet treats, and fancifully knotted ties, The Marquis brings in Caine (Donnie Yen), a retired blind assassin and old friend of Wick to finish him off. Naturally, The Marquis makes Caine an offer he can’t refuse, leading to another set of contradictions that play into the larger whole.
The action trots the globe, starting with Wick in his trademark and beautifully tailored Kevlar black suit galloping across the desert with gun blazing on his way to an ultimately futile meeting with someone who can extricate him from his predicament with The High Table. From there it’s on to Osaka, where Caine finds him, but not before The High Table arrives to visit a similar fate to that city’s Continental Hotel, leading to one of those ci-mentioned action sequences that are endlessly inventive, not the least for the way Caine doesn’t let blindness get in the way of being as deadly as Wick. Also in Osaka is Tracker (Shamier Anderson) a free agent waiting for the price on Wick’s head to go up enough to make it worth his while to take him out. In a nod to Chapter 1, Tracker has a dog that is not just adorable and loyal, but also handy to have in a fight. Then it’s on to Paris and Berlin where the three assassins do battle with one another and The High Table until Winston devises a wickedly clever plan to beat The High Table at its own rule-laden, honor-bound game. Or get himself killed.
Even at almost three hours, the film never overstays its welcome and, even more astonishing for a film that is essentially all action sequences, it never feels repetitive. Each venue, each battle has its own distinct personality. The action is bombastic and often clever as crotches takes the worst of it when the rumble starts. As for the characters, they are intriguing, even when as broadly drawn (literally and figuratively) as Killa (Scott Adkins), the zaftig and purple-suited head of the German Table who cheats at cards with the three assassins before trying to, of course, kill them. To be fair, Wick is on a mission to Killa’s club, Himmel Hölle, to kill him, but Wick, further of course, has a good reason for his intentions. That particular sequence in a dance club fitted out with rainfall and fire provides a particularly nice metaphor about how two worlds can live side by side, occupying the same space but not the same reality. As patrons dance in nihilistic abandon, the barely note the people trying to kill each other with, among other things, axes. That is until the action starts to affect them directly and then rather than offer assistance, it’s every man, woman, and trance-dancer for him- or herself. As for the mad dash through the Place de l’Étoile, it may not be a metaphor, but it also may be the best cinematic use of traffic as an offensive weapon this decade.
Then there is Reeves, displaying the same world-weary tinge to his relentless pursuit of freedom (metaphor much?). It helps that he looks so good in that suit and is so credible as an action hero, but what makes him so compelling is that strange, halting way of speaking, that deliberate tone but hesitant delivery. It is a man in an altered state, not unlike the oneiric (yes, I used that word last time I reviewed a John Wick film) world of noir-eseque reds, greens, and blues in which he struggles.
The heightened reality of JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 grabs the heart as it dashes at warp-speed through its dizzying battle choreography spiked, like the rest of the proceedings with both tension and an oddball black humor that can explode into mayhem at any moment. It’s a perfect conundrum, an astonishment of wonders, and one of the best cinematic spectacles this year.