Bulletproof Suit | John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023) Review

Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Ian McShane

In a way, John Wick: Chapter 4 is a needless sequel. Rewind to 2019, with about 45 minutes to go in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, around when the plot seems to whisper “actually, this is not the grand finale.” A confrontation with the ultimate bad guys is averted, and we’re left on a cliffhanger. What’s funny about the world of John Wick as it’s expressed in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 is – where’s the mob? Who are these assassins killing when they’re not killing each other? This felt like less of a “problem” in Chapter 3, where John Wick was facing the consequences for the assassination of a non-assassin character. Cue the assassins, and that’s fine. In Chapter 4, we have the same consequence, again. Now it isn’t John Wick versus New York City, it’s John Wick versus… well, that’s a long story.

It’s also a funny thing, as an action movie fan, to respond to one of its greatest examples with anything less than pure enthusiasm. Moviegoer as spoiled child, but as it stands, I prefer Chapter 3. Despite being bigger and better, Chapter 4 doesn’t have the same killer hook, isn’t propulsed by a simple story. And despite all the thematic echoes to the original John Wick, I was reminded of Chapter 2, which stops dead in the middle. It’s the odd-numbered installments that require little table-setting in between the action.

To be clear, this shit was cool as hell. Look at Donnie Yen there

One of the interesting sound bites from the press tour is that John Wick: Chapter 4 boasts “14 action sequences,” a series best. I’ve never heard such a proclamation as part of a film’s marketing, but I appreciated it. These movies are strings of great action scenes, and it’s refreshing to hear a director subtly assert that “that counts.” That much a movie makes.

At the same time, Chad Stahelski (an auteur if there ever was, who even sometimes alludes to a hand in writing despite not being credited) understands that the difference between good and great action is context. Among countless others, he’s a student of Sergio Leone, as this film’s climax well demonstrates in those guitar flourishes recalling “The Trio.” Chapter 4 is at its strongest in the second half, beginning with Killa’s club, when the action sequences lift with narrative momentum. I don’t know if it was just my bad seat in the far back of the Dolby Theater (talk about defeating the point), but I was surprised by how nonplussed I was by the opening scenes in the Osaka Continental. Aside from my own forgetting that Keanu and Hiroyuki Sanada costarred in 47 Ronin, I think part of it was that a lot of the bad guys were wearing armor, and thus hard to kill. It wasn’t like the Madness Combat museum sequence at the end of Chapter 2, which is always in conversation for Best of John Wick. It’s a different rhythm, with fewer punchlines – however offset by on-the-fly creativity.

More importantly, it’s an issue of clarity – the goal here is “defend the hotel,” which is far less specific than the later “kill Killa” or “reach the Sacré-Cœur.” How many bad guys do they have to defeat before it’s done? Where are they going; what’s Point A and Point B? But all of it is essential in reconstructing the plot, redefining the terms of John’s journey. It’s a mythology thing that John Wick never actually takes on the High Table, because you always need edges of a universe (see: Prometheus). I mean, where does the Doom Slayer go after he’s killed all of Hell and Heaven? Instead, we have the Marquis to put a face to the enemy, and Koji, Caine, and Akira to put faces to the cost of fighting the enemy. However labored, it turns out to be a really good story. More sophisticated than Chapter 3, with cinephilic thematic resonance and even class-conscious commentary.

Of course, almost every piece of dialogue in John Wick 4 is some variation of an antagonist telling John who he is and how he can’t escape his truth/fate. Strangely, the broad strokes are smartly drawn, but in the talky-talky, there’s a lot of telling and not showing. And yet, this stock film criticism barely applies here, because it’s Scott Adkins saying it, or Ian McShane and Bill Skarsgård doing their scene-chew face/off, or Clancy Brown as the Harbinger. I mean, he’s excellent, but “Clancy Brown as the Harbinger” was all anyone needed.

It may have taken four movies, but the thought finally occurred to me during the stair sequence: “Why doesn’t he wear a tactical vest?” Maybe this was a factor in Chapter 3, but Chapter 4 had a lot of guys throwing up their sleeves or jacket flaps to deflect bullets. I don’t really know what to make of that yet. But it’s like, man, this has to be the terminal point for the John Woo “suits no matter what” thing. Of course, if John Wick isn’t wearing a suit, it’s not really John Wick, but a different set of 14 action sequences. And to that, where does Handsome Chad go from here? Ghost of Tsushima? Highlander? (Yes, please). Rainbow Six? Will those movies have the same thrill that comes from the quiet declaration that “action is the point”? Will they feel as free to be inventive? Will Ghost dodge horses in ancient Japan’s equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe?

Early on in the series, I think there was concern that, because the John Wick movies were so consistently good, they shouldn’t run their course like every other franchise. But it’s different. John Wick is driven by two big things: Keanu Reeves – and you might as well do as much as you can with him while he’s willing/able – and a philosophy. Honestly, Stahelski is a revelation in the movie world, and much has been written about his influence on Hollywood’s increased priority for stunt performers before and behind the camera. In interviews, he talks about how “You need a good crew,” and these sorts of things that give me anxiety as an ex-film school student. (Graduate? I guess I prefer “ex”). Wow, I’d never be able to hang with these guys, on account of my clumsiness and a general lack of everything. The opposite of that is now who’s in charge of American action movies, finally putting Hollywood in a league with Hong Kong.

It’s the kind of filmmakers who look at actors and say, “What can you do best?” which explains much of Scott Adkins’s performance in stark contrast to his bit parts in other Hollywood films. The process is appreciated because it’s transparent that way. The performance is great, and it was staged upon a shared understanding of action movie lore, of every YouTube comment reasonably lamenting that Adkins isn’t playing Batman. You can practically see the director’s mind at work, piecing together these elaborate setpieces one beat at a time, or thinking about placing the camera above the action to distinguish a John Wick “oner.”

And I think that contributes to an indie spirit, very much the case with the original and even Chapter 2, the kind a lot of filmmakers lose when the budgets increase. Chapter 4 somehow still feels experimental, or at least, generous with expression. At this budget, with this much experience and confidence, it’s an extraordinary thing to see. It dazzles with painterly, perfectly pretentious imagery and a surreal fantasy touch. Seriously, the Arc de Triomphe scene has the same energy as the big one in RRR. So, if John Wick: Chapter 5 comes together someday, it may very well feel “needless,” but if it’s anything like this one, it’ll simultaneously fulfill a universe of needs anyway.

Including, well, that this title sequence is absurd:

John Wick
John Wick: Chapter 2
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
John Wick: Chapter 4

You see how imbalanced that is, right? Well, I guess it kind of looks like an upside-down gun.


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