There’s an old adage in the theater that those acting in a comedy must never know that they’re in one. It’s true, for if any actor would betray such knowledge to the audience, the ‘drama’ of the story would evaporate. The same applies to those acting in the new actioner JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4. By now, the franchise is essentially action-comedy, and more power to it for knowing that. The stunts, the shootouts, the cryptic lines – – they’re all outrageous, even hilarious. And you gotta love Keanu Reeves because not only does he do most of his own stunts, but he plays all the utter craziness as straight as his character’s sure-shot aim.
Four films in, the franchise keeps getting slicker, nastier, and funnier. It’s a glossy rollercoaster ride that keeps its main character running and gunning, along with the pace. Here, Wick is still trying to earn his way back into the good graces of the High Table crime syndicate that used to be his employer. And his search for peace will take him through deserts, discos, and swank settings in numerous foreign countries to find it. Wick is still labeled “excommunicado” for his unauthorized behavior, including the killing of a previous crime lord, and the new Marquis (Bill Skarsgard) wants retribution upon him as well as those who’ve helped the assassin along the way. Thus, the Marquis raises the bounty on Wick’s head to $20 million for all comers, in addition to penalizing Wick’s mentor Winston (Ian McShane) by snuffing out his loyal concierge Charon (Lance Raddick) and decimating his swank Manhattan hotel.
Some time is spent mourning Charon, the only truly serious time in the film, and both Reeves and McShane add the appropriate gravitas to those brief scenes. But soon after, they’re back to all the chaos of their over-the-top world which now sees Wick trying to buy his freedom by way of a duel involving pistols at dawn. Wick and Winston negotiate with the Marquis and his associates on various details of the fight, but the sneaky snake Marquis finds a way out of it by assigning his role to blind assassin Caine (Donnie Yen), a friend of Wick’s. That nasty Marquis even broadcasts Wick’s every move to a network of assassins the night before via radio to increase the odds of his opponent’s death before sunrise. Somehow the Table doesn’t seem to mind that kind of illegal and egregious behavior, but who’s to mind? Certainly not the audience in the cineplex itching to see Wick take out anyone who crosses his path.
And cross his path they do as Wick must scamper, drive, punch, and shoot his way out of various set-pieces, one more spectacular than the next. I won’t spoil any of the various bits but suffice it to say the two most hellzapoppin scenes involve a chase with Wick behind the wheel of a doorless sports car and another where he must trot up hundreds of stairs in a public park. They’re absurd but exciting, and that’s really the point of this franchise by now. And as gonzo as these action sequences are, the detail given to their fight choreography, cinematography, and editing is truly exceptional.
Reeve gives each scene his physical all, and director Chad Stahelski does a superb job of staging the whole shebang. Some scenes go on a bit too long, and at times I felt as winded as Wick, but there’s so much to admire in every scene, the visuals trump the fatigue. Praise should be given to cinematographer Dan Lausten and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh for making everything slick and gorgeous. Even when art exhibits, hallowed halls, and city blocks are being destroyed, it’s a shiny spectacle of eye candy.
McShane and Laurence Fishburne, returning as the Bowery King, stand out in support, but the film does well by all its featured players. Skarsgard makes for a coy and nattily dressed villain and Yen convinces as both a blind man and peer of Wick’s. New characters played by Clancy Brown, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rina Sawayama, and Shamir Anderson have a lot to do and each makes a vivid impression. Points too for including a dog character that gets plenty of laughs as well as action opportunities. Stahelski and his screenwriters Shay Hatten and Michael Finch surround Wick with interesting folks, and because of that, we invest in their fates as well.
All in all, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 delivers the goods. It’s cheeky in its humor and boisterous in its malevolence, never allowing the body count to become depressing. Quite the opposite; it’s so nuts it never seems real. It’s like a big, exaggerated video game brought to life with exceptional artistry. And as popcorn entertainment, that makes for a lot of fun at the movies.