John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)
Updated: Apr 5
Note: This review is a bit different than my usual since this is contemporary to a theatrical release instead of me digging up some ancient obscurity on a VHS rip or whatever. I'll update this post with more screenshots as they become available, possibly changing the structure as well. In any case, see this on the big screen while you can!
Of the series so far, JW4 may have the most consideration as to what social entanglements & personal priorities ensue when a widely polarising figurehead contradicts a system that's revoked his standing within it. Despite using a fantasy criminal underworld & almost cartoonish violence as shorthand for teetering on the edge of death/social destruction, the premise holds some real-world relevance in our international age of the inescapable internet & thinly veiled anarcho-tyranny. High status, plentiful resources, & rule-skirting are practically required to have the power to keep above streets of increasing bloodshed & decreasing blood ties, and they're absolutely required to go toe-to-toe with the social engineers who ensure widespread instability for their own profit margins. And anyone's life, whether it be an aspiring climber or a meek bystander, can now be rendered untouchable or even extinguished at any point by the power structure or the unscrupulous hordes it harbors.
John Wick is a timely pulp-fantasy hero for striving to redefine himself from the rootless & corrupt existence he was orphaned into, at first by simple separation but possibly necessarily by revolution. Though 4 complicates this trajectory by, instead of having him take out the High Table world order, offering a way for him to cut out & keep his head down as something other than a fighter in the future should he (be able to) choose to. Something to consider in conflicts/revolutions is if the underdogs would decide to drop their cause to live another day if they got the chance after barely surviving a gauntlet of battles with no end in sight.
That possible way out for Wick (and the filmmakers in case they can't make the planned fifth entry for whatever reason) is the Marquis de Gramont, a newly identified threat behind the scene who blurs the line between old & new money for being a likely already rich entity rising to further power granted by the High Table in order to deal with the Wick threat (and its representation of shaking up the status quo). By responding to Wick the same way a politician will campaign on an issue solely for popularity, Marquis has become second only to the Table, whom he states he would like to replace -- albeit with a likely equally heartless approach of his own; he could loosely be defined as the Zuck to their Schwab -- which further implies that Wick has indeed made inroads into breaking this increasingly desperate (if still distantly untouchable) iron grip.
Yet that same blessing upon the Marquis proves a curse by painting a target on his own back. A clever operator named the Tracker is able to defend Wick from the Marquis's personal assassins in order to haggle the Marquis for a higher bounty on John's head first. More crucially, by achieving his current stratospheric rank, the Marquis has the power to absolve Wick of his obligations to the High Table & thus is tempted by the silk-tongued Winston to accept a duel from Wick (if only to better corner & attack the rebel beforehand since his assassins have had trouble doing the job otherwise) that can result in such absolvement being achieved for Wick, who can get out clean if he survives. Despite the Marquis being ostensively more socially powerful than everyone but the old guard of the High Table by punching down, people like Wick & the negotiating Tracker are able to find specific ways to turn what he needs to retain power against him.
The results of this setup are these questions. Can Wick manage to keep these set appointments, despite unfair attacks from the established powers in the meantime, in order to win by this window of opportunity before the system closes it shut or kills him first? Must he sell out comrades who have been unwillingly weaponized against him to do so? And is Wick willing or able to give up battling against the High Table & live a totally different life, or will some moral obligations pull him back into the fray to the destruction of the Table, Wick, or both?
Some more scattered bullet points on this bullet storm, with spoilers from here out:
Favorite fight was probably the battle in the middle of traffic, not only for all the kinetic madness that entailed but also for reinforcing that even streets in public are unsafe from the craven, with the Parisian locations being flooded with mercking mercs feeling especially timely considering the spikes of foreign criminals & frequent riots there in recent years. And it follows into an instantly classic gunfight making the most of Wick's inclinations towards antique locales, observational distance in camera placement, and vitalism in both sound & physicality alike. AND then an uphill climb showing how even our practically superhuman lead has his limits & needs help to deal with unfair circumstances, too.
That four-story pratfall(s) almost crossed the threshold of acceptability that Jackie Chan & Yuen Biao set in their real-life falls, though while being a tad less convincing, Reeves lives up to them in his sense of stoic fatigue. I especially liked the Paris one because he immediately has to check his watch since just surviving an impossible present isn't enough.
Felt this had the best choreography in the series so far on a micro-level, too. Some understandably find the observational long-take medium-shot approach less preferable than the more quick-cutting intimate perspectives in other martial arts classics, but I enjoy the sustaining of fatigued, unresting bodies continuing against merciless challenges, and the series of strikes in themselves are intricate. Plus I found the stunt work in this more convincing than some of the (well-choreographed but not ideally shot) fistfights near the end of JW3.
Raid on Osaka had a sense of national sovereignty being violated even as Shimazu harbored a sort of outsider with common ideals in the form of Wick himself. This whole series has had a nuanced approach to the pains & pleasures of international connection. instead of playing favorites, it grants equal opportunity across the board to be foes & friends alike.
Ever more old-money international ruling class imagery with each title, incorporated by not only the aesthetics of the High Table (especially Clancy Brown's ritual-mediating Harbinger bearing only one unscarred eye like the Illuminati symbol) but also how locations from around the world show the legacy constructions of their respective cultures having harsh lighting & other modern architectural sensibilities infused into them: a universalizing many "old buildings were better" aesthetic-lovers claim is indicative of a mass beholding to international culture-stiflers
Longest one yet but also the best pacing & most consistent significance of scenes aside from maybe 2 imo; a reminder that good pacing & editing are more than just making a long movie short
Lot of secondary characters as Wick makes more connections & entanglements alike, yet they’re all integrated into the action (both choreography and plot): Wilson & Bowery King are the least involved, but the latter has harbored John & expanded his business internationally. And Winston learns the hard way from being powerless to stop Charon, arguably the most professional & well-meaning character of the cast, demoralizingly sacrificed by the example-setting Marquis that you can't be halfway aligned with any one faction since the Table punishes him for harboring John in 3 even after betraying him at the end, keeping him alive but powerless by himself to ward off any other factions from getting any funny ideas. Despite his stripped rank, Winston gives John vital information & talks Marquis into taking the duel, though the fact that this side-switcher is almost always acting in a way that benefits himself makes him remain somewhat suspicious to the point that you'd want to have more than just him by your side.
Donnie Yen is a delightfully ludicrous Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman homage named Caine, who seems at amicable ease with his impairment (if you can call it that), chill under most duress, able to make a joke even at his own expense, using gadgets to detect stealthy enemies, and just able to hear them Daredevil-style in open brawls. He's less at ease with his regretted violent past & lingering obligations forcing him to kill John or have his own bloodline be killed. The tension between him & Wick is if they'll be more helpful to each other or more inclined to mire the other into bad relations with the Table & others.
Shamier Anderson is possibly my favorite newcomer, as an ambitious lone wolf (save for a battle-hound at his side) Tracker named Mr. Nobody. He aims to milk the Marquis's rising bounty on Wick for all it's worth by salesmanly exacerbating the Marquis's insecurities in their negotiations, with the two holding each other hostage as to who can ruin whom. Nobody has a drolly polite & professional demeanor that helps him make the most of his leverage even as he finds himself getting more than he bargained for by becoming involved in the first place despite Caine's knowing warning. Nobody's fighting style is a more pugilistic, masculine take on the synergy between Halle Berry's Sofia & her dogs in 3; he's a bit less dynamic in his fights choreographically but arguably a more interesting complication in the plot & his battle entrances for his attempts at getting his foot in the door of a dangerous but potentially rewarding opportunity.
Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada) & Akira (Rina Sawayama) are a father and daughter who are on good familial terms running what seems to be an Asiatic equivalent to the Continental, but they have very different. That John's plea for shelter in the accommodating Shimazu's compound results in disaster for all involved goes to show that allies, when still scarce in number, are at their most useful when intangible & low-profile, as the more proliferated Bowery King continues to be. The unfortunate entanglement at Osaka (especially for the lasting implications) also goes to show again that John is as fallible in making moves for allies as he is fallible as needing them in the first place. And that many ideals have not passed from Shimazu's generation to Akira (who speaks in a foreign accent & can't comprehend her father's sense of moral responsibility over contractual obligations & simple retaliations) entails some disturbing future implications.
Marko Zaror is a fantastic, undersung DTV action star who gives some mean style to a potentially nondescript role here as Chidi, a surprisingly competent head henchman of the Marquis. He's got a quiet, highly professional demeanor that subtly bleeds away into smirking beatdown sadism when given the chance, but what really stands out about him is how persistent he is in the final gauntlet, taking almost as much punishment as Wick & even outmatching him more than once as he's eluded only to appear back in the hunt again & again. His death is somewhat cheaply cruel, but it's preluded by some impressively skilled CQC demonstrations that give Wick some of the most trouble he's had thrown his way in the series. One appreciates these films for seeking out & signal boosting our greatest underground martial arts masters, even in passing.
Speaking of which, I would've liked to see more of Scott Adkins than just a highly memorable bit role & some of the best scenes in the movie, but in any case, he's a welcome presence. Killa is a gold-fanged card shark who recalls the likes of Andrew Tate (before the Matrix rhetoric) in his comfort in exploiting vice to climb social ladders, as well as his imposing (if fatsuited) stature & cruel observations on the characters of the less fortunate & less ruthless -- more intriguing than Bautista's toothless manosphere fraud in Knives Out 2. His club fight is even more spectacular than the coliseum rave in JW2; that innovation was clever for the blunt bloodshed as well as the subtler implications of classic architecture being trashily reconfigured, but this one might be even more evocative as a more visually infernally hellish sight of surreal NPCs (evidently willing to accommodate a mafioso such as Killa) paying little heed to the carnage around them. That Wick must contend with waves of foes before even getting a chance to start fighting this target in order to get more faction connections (and those connections being for getting only a chance to get closer to a chance to escape) goes to show how many barriers to progress Wick's sisyphean quest entails.
And of course, there's Wick himself, ever fuelled by a sense of righteous indignation. Ambivalent as to if he can change the way he lives his life & if his lost wife can hear him, but trying to do good just the same. One man with a sense of justice who's trying to correct course while meeting obligations both contractual & morally felt is nobler than masses of others acting to more craven ends all combined. In battle, he's the kinetic beauty of self-defending physical exertion, the rightness of Saint George slaying the dragon instead of trying to sympathize with it, and the grace of recognizing the all-too-few who <i>will</i> accept mercy without exploiting him. Moral responsibility requires reciprocity, with all that Wick demands of others usually amounting to repaying a favor or just leaving him alone. This is a sort of innocence & goodness in itself. The almost cartoonish violence is therefore not so much a celebration of war so much as a celebration of the warrior spirit & of survival against unfair attacks from the anarcho-tyrant & the favor-seeking thug.
On a general note, I should clarify that I may see this film differently than some others since I rarely keep up with development news until after a product is finished (didn't even realize this was gonna be in theaters soon until a few months back). Reading up, I've seen creator claims that 4 might be the last despite claims years earlier of there being 5 films planned. But they did have qualifiers based on if it performed well, which was a reasonable ambiguity on their end given blockbusters having even more hellish production post-COVID regulations & titles such as Matrix 4 being financial failures. Hence why they wrote this as if they *could* stop here or scale down if Keanu choked on an apple or something, even if there's plenty of potential to expand.
I doubt this is the end, but some have been disappointed that Wick doesn't comprehensively overthrow the status quo in this entry. I interpreted & still expect the idea to be that Wick cuts out after finally identifying (didn't know anyone as high up as recently responsively promoted Marquis before now) & eliminating a key to leverage, by ways of an old-ways ritual stated to exist for the exact purpose of being a release valve to divert or "legitimately" hush opposition. Again, the question the film sets up is if Wick will quit while he's ahead (as the High Table would prefer since he's shown that their stranglehold isn't totally invincible) or get pulled in yet again out of moral obligation against an unjust ruling class or to aid allies in trouble. JW4 has had strong opening profits, so I do expect an even grander follow-up to come. I'll be saddened if Wick doesn't accomplish the revolution the world he was born into so badly needs, but in any case, there's goodness in making it to one's end with a sense of self in