' ' Cinema Romantico: John Wick: Chapter 4

Monday, April 03, 2023

John Wick: Chapter 4

The original “John Wick” (2014) was not merely a straight-forward revenge thriller but purposely, even humorously, stripped of reality, reducing the world to good guys and bad guys. Its sequels, Chapters 2 and 3, took the movie’s peripheral world, especially its assassins-only hotel called The Continental, and expanded it. This choice did not necessarily render those follow-ups more convoluted, or even less than good, though by the conclusion of the third, “Parabellum,” you could still detect a creeping enervation, the action movie needle tilting more toward zero than sixty. In deciding to end things with “John Wick: Chapter 4,” however, director Chad Stahelski might further augment his cinematic universe with ornate codes and rituals, but he also puts his eponymous character on a clock, sculpting a movie of baroque valleys and blood-splattered peaks that are adroitly divvied out to ensure this is one two hour and forty-nine-minute movie that never too obscenely wears its running time.

Stahelski is not shy about quoting influences, like his editor Nathan Orloff cutting from a match to the desert a la Ann V. Coates’s famous work in “Lawrence of Arabia,” or the underworld intelligence agent The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) literally quoting Dante’s Inferno as “John Wick: Chapter 4” opens. This moment, though, in which Wick pounds his bloodied fist again and again against an inanimate board while The Bowery King goads him on made me think more of Bundini Brown as hype man to Muhammad Ali, equating the eponymous hero with a heavyweight champ readying for one more bout. It’s evocative of the waggishness defining the series and concluding chapter too, like in the emergent villain, the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård). Sending up our own world while taking place in its own, the Marquis crystallizes a burgeoning sort of modern aristocracy, never more hilariously than when he has one of the Louvre’s Red Rooms set up with a chic sofa set for a tête-à-tête. If you can’t bring Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau to your living room, bring your living room to Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau!

The Marquis has been dispatched by the High Table that runs the “John Wick” world to put John Wick himself in a casket once and for all, which is what everyone has been trying to do for going on four movies, a recurring joke that once again fails to run dry because Skarsgard’s smarminess amusingly embodies a supremely self-impressed belief that his attempt will be different. John Wick, however, turns the tables by utilizing his intricate world’s customs to challenge the Marquis to a duel, a ploy suggested by his ever-present hotelier cohort Winston, the as-always debonair Ian McShane imbuing so much exposition with patented breezy regality. This duel, of course, can’t just happen, necessitating John Wick jump through a number of hoops by way of globe-trotting spectacle, all culminating in a sunrise showdown at the Sacré Coeur.

Like the preceding three films, the action here proves almost endlessly inventive, both conceptually and visually, in ways both small and large, from the joyfully modest tradecraft of a blind assassin (Donnie Yen) enlisted by the Marquis to collect on Wick’s head to sensational location work that is rarely mere backdrop. The complicated traffic rules surrounding the Arc de Triomphe in Paris pave the way for a unique car chase / gunfight blend while a mammoth Montmartre staircase transforms Rocky Balboa’s ascension of the Philadelphia Library steps into a cosmically foiled Buster Keaton stunt, breathing new life into the hoary phrase Pick Yourself Up and Try Again. Reviews aren’t the place for Oscar prognostication but I’m not prognosticating when I simply point out Stahelski has argued for the inclusion of a Best Stunt Academy Award, and that I say give the inaugural one to Vincent Bouillon. 

It is 222 steps John Wick climbs to the Sacré Coeur, allowing for multiple landings in-between, each of which becomes a kind of dance floor of wild action, evoking the dance-like quality of this movie and the series in general. Indeed, a lengthy setpiece at a waterfall-strewn Berlin club is filled to the brim with dancers, their exertions mirroring choreographed bloody mayhem all around them. Stahelski shoots these scenes not only with a fluid camera but in long takes and wide takes, allowing us to clearly see the full scope of the action. As impressive as it, however, there can come a point where an assembly line sensation to these nameless, inevitable foils creeps in, effecting a weariness that might have weighed the whole project down if Reeves, whittling his dialogue down to virtually nothing, did not embody that weariness as his character’s own, a man mowing so many other men down so he can finally find peace. John Wick might be the most skilled assassin alive, but in one shot atop an Osaka hotel decorated with a cherry blossom tree, he just looks like another melancholy figure in a Japanese floral painting.  

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