Monday, March 27, 2023

A Man with a Cause: John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023) Review

Director: Chad Stahelski

Notable Cast: Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgard, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick, Clancy Brown, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shamier Anderson, Rina Sawayama, Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror


At one point leading into the final portion of John Wick: Chapter 4, Clancy Brown’s Harbinger warns the big bad of the film, The Marquis - played with a seething and conniving performance by Bill Skarsgard, that a man’s ambition should never exceed his worth. The moment is one to indicate that, despite the villain’s endless amount of resources and skilled killers, The Marquis is still over his head in trying to kill John Wick. Yet it’s also the same warning that echoed my worries for this fourth entry.


Would the ambitions of the John Wick franchise eventually exceed its worth?


With John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, one could see the ambitions for building the globe trotting world start to stretch to the point of excess. Not that the film is inherently bad, nay, but it is one where some of the choices for plot and narrative felt the strain.


With John Wick: Chapter 4, the series addresses those (including an opening sequence that neatly ties an open thread with a bullet point of finality) and then proceeds to grow the series in scope while going back to the thematic and narrative points about the character that made this franchise explode with audiences. It’s a cinematic magic trick of epic proportions. It balances its emotional parallels for the character while simultaneously giving the viewer the biggest and most ambitious entry yet. If the ambitions were exceeding the worth, Chapter 4 grows the worth to match those ambitions. The results are glorious and punctuated with the viciousness of a napalm loaded shotgun blast.


John Wick: Chapter 4 is Shakespearean action cinema that reaches a new height for the genre and blends homage with fresh feeling mythological storytelling. All while it continues to raise the bar in Hollywood filmmaking for complex action set pieces told in gorgeous visuals.


Kicking off with Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King shouting to the heavens as he comes to deliver John Wick his newest suit, it is immediate that Chapter 4 was aiming to be the most epic of the series in its storytelling. Yes, it’s going to be shouting with its bright and bold visuals, bombastic action, and gargantuan run time, but it’s going to thread it with a cohesiveness and smart sense of character and theme that will carry it through. In each of its details, Chapter 4 is akin to Fishburne’s performance as the King. It’s aiming for big and the results are cinematically astounding.


 Just the use of sets, which rockets around the globe like New York, Paris, Berlin, and Osaka, is a CHOICE. Director Chad Stahelski and Oscar nominated cinematographer Dan Laustsen deliver a film that is simply gorgeous in each frame. The use of the neon colors from previous entries is emboldened to 11/10 here and whether it’s the use of water in Berlin, sunshine in Paris, or the cherry blossoms and samurai armor of Osaka, the film is aiming to deliver a fantasy-esque version of each location. Even the way that Stahelski pulls the camera back to show the size of each location and how small each person is in it is something to be admired that adds to the size of everything.


With the settings ramped up, what Chapter 4 truly delivers on, even more so than previous entries, is the interconnectivity of its characters. Yes, John Wick – still played with the stoic determination of third wave Keanu, is still finding his freedom and a way back to his home, but the film really does some gymnastics to fill out the world around him. A mysterious Tracker, played by Shamier Anderson, delivers the human and dog bond we still expect. Hiroyuki Sanada brings a gravitas and fatherly love to the film as the manager of the Osaka Continental. Scott Adkins is hamming it up in an evil Sammo Hung inspired performance as an underground gangster in Berlin. Marko Zaror is going full Bond henchman to the previously mentioned Skarsgard and Rina Sawayama, as Akira, gets a solid backdoor introduction to a possible spin off. All of them are owning their moments, interjecting the necessary character beats to parallel Wick’s narrative, or punctuating the world with their own quirks. It’s impressive to say the least.


Yet, it’s Caine, played by the always incredible Donnie Yen, that tends to steal this film. Although the gimmick of a blind swordsman and assassin is one that isn’t all that original, Yen’s inspired Zatoichi style performance as a haunted man who uses humor to lesson his own burdens ends up being one of those characters that elevates all of the material. His own backstory, which is only briefly touched upon, reflects Wick’s and creates a dynamic that’s worth seeing. Yen provides a slew of great moments in the film and one of the biggest emotional moments too. There’s a lot of call for a spin off with his character and, to be frank, I’m 1000% in for that.


Of course, when you have a cast as such with some of the world’s greatest action talent and a stunt crew lead by Stahelski, there are lofty expectations for the action set pieces. To say that Chapter 4 decimates those expectations might be an understatement. The first big action sequence, a massive “siege” on the Osaka Continental is large enough and impressive enough to be the finale in any of the other best action films of the year…and that’s just setting the stage. As each new sequence unravels on the screen, it becomes apparent that Stahelski and his team are truly insane. Fights in traffic circles, throughout water soaked dance clubs, or up the most daunting set of stairs known to man increasingly build on the complexity of choreography and execution throughout. It all culminates in the “dragon’s breath” gunfight which should be immediately cemented into one of the greatest gunfights EVER to grace the silver screen – along the likes of Hard Boiled or Heat. It’s that kind of elevated action.


With an emotional core that continues to explore the meaning of “family” and how far people will go (or not go) for it in this expansive world of killers, Chapter 4 manages to up the ante for the franchise while cutting back to why John Wick has gone on this rampage in the first place. Through an exploration by other characters that allows him to remain stoic, this fourth chapter solidifies every reason why this franchise is successful. Its action is immense and impressively executed, the visuals soar to fantastical heights, and the narrative has now fully embraced its Shakespearean pillars. Which all leads me back to the initial warning about ambition and worth.


Would the worth of John Wick eventually exceed its ambition? In the iconic line of dialogue that introduces the character in this film, “Yeah.”


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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