Review: 'John Wick: Chapter 4' is a Masterclass on Action Filmmaking
by Manuel São Bento
March 27, 2023
The first John Wick film came out almost a decade ago, and its success had a tremendous impact on the filmmaking industry, redefining the action genre in Hollywood with an internationally successful franchise. Over the last few years, there has been a gradual evolution in the dedication, time, and budget spent on stunts, mainly intricate fight scenes. Nowadays, every action flick has at least one moment where stuntmen have the opportunity to truly shine. The question surrounding the next sequel, John Wick: Chapter 4, is the same as for the other films: does it manage to elevate the already exceptional level of its predecessors' stunt work even further, or has it lost the initial enthusiasm that conquered so many fans originally in 2014?
I don't think it's worth the suspense of leaving the commentary on the action until the end. John Wick is a saga that promises viewers insanely long takes filled with extremely complex choreography, shootouts with attention to detail rarely seen in most Hollywood movies – reloading of pistols, falling bullets, ricochets, flashes – stuntmen literally being thrown at everything and anything imaginable, and an endless variety of objects to be used as deadly weapons. This fourth installment delivers all of that… and much more.
John Wick: Chapter 4 undoubtedly contains the best action in the entire franchise. Analyzing this aspect exclusively, there's no comparison with previous movies, as the leap in "technical quality" (which is always subjective) is titanic. The budget is five times higher than the original and this difference is noticeable on the screen. The story in this fourth & supposedly last film – which I was unaware of before the screening – traverses practically all continents, traveling from the deserts of Morocco to the vibrant city of Osaka, to the nightclub halls of Berlin, to the surreal beauty of Paris, and, of course, where it all began: New York.
Except for the last one, all cities have one or more action sequences so impressive that they could perfectly be the climactic conclusion of any action flick ever created. The film's DP Dan Laustsen makes Chapter 4 the most stunning movie in the franchise by a large margin. Both in the action and the unfolding of the story itself, the vivid colors stand out, which will leave the most cynical critics of Hollywood's gray palette incredibly satisfied. The use of red in dark surroundings reflects the vengeful state of mind and spirit that John Wick (Keanu Reeves) emanates, and the character's arc can be fully understood through this choice.
Even so, Laustsen's cinematography reaches another level when he must move the camera around the very, very long action set pieces. John Wick: Chapter 4 has horse chases across the desert, swords and nunchucks destroying an entire hotel, cars constantly hitting characters in an extraordinarily tense sequence set in the roundabout of the Arc de Triomphe, an absolutely unforgettable up-and-down staircase sequence with 222 steps, an "old-fashioned" duel that will delight Western fans, and,an uninterrupted long-take filmed from above with a drone (!) that goes down in history as one of the best action scenes in cinema's history.
The action sequence that takes place inside of the Berlin nightclub is the only one that falls behind slightly on being perfect from start to finish. Action scenes are like climbing a mountain: adrenaline levels build to a certain peak, but if the sequence goes on much longer, interest starts to wane, and, to put it quite simply, viewers will stop caring. John Wick: Chapter 4 holds an excellent balance in that regard, justifying the epic three-hour duration… something that leads me to a debate that has marked recent times.
A wave of negative comments about movies that run over two hours – something I've always looked at as normal – has taken over social media in the past years. My two cents: no film is "too long" or "too short" because of its runtime. A movie should take as long as it needs to tell its story, whether it's eighty minutes or four hours. I also see a lot of hypocrisy in this discussion, noting negative statements about the length of an indie drama that doesn't even reach the two-hour mark – complaining about lack of time in their life – while the commenter rewatches three hour+ blockbusters multiple times at the theater.
Shifting back to my original intent with this discussion, John Wick: Chapter 4 is as long as it should be. I didn't feel the repetitiveness of the combat choreography from the last movies – where fights reach a point where they just look like dances without consequences – because Chad Stahelski and his stunt team manage to innovate and bring something new to each set piece. The sound design is some of the most potent I've experienced in recent years, and the score by Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard matches these high-intensity levels, despite some moments where it feels too imposing. For some, it might even be uncomfortable.
Another highlight of the film is the supporting cast and the several new additions to the action franchise. The legendary Donnie Yen stands out from the pack, playing a blind antagonist with a quite compelling arc. The actor offers his phenomenal martial arts skills to elevate all his scenes, as well as brilliant comedic timing. Shamier Anderson (also seen in Stowaway, A Lot of Nothing, Bruiser) also deserves praise for his performance as Mr. Nobody, a character who grows with the course of the narrative – just like his main motivation, which serves as a tension-building device – and who brings the necessary amount of humor to a saga that also requires a few seconds to stop and breathe.
Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick, and Ian McShane reprise their respective roles from before, with the latter delivering his most emotional performance of every film. It's always great to see the iconic Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada masterfully fighting with his sword, but personally, my favorite is the dog in John Wick: Chapter 4 which steals the spotlight many times. Keanu Reeves is… well, John Wick. A strong display as a man of few words – rarely more than a sentence – but a lot of sweat, blood, and sacrifice. Any actor who performs most of their stunts will always earn my respect and admiration.
Regarding Bill Skarsgård, it's clear that the actor had a lot of fun portraying an arrogant, overly ambitious villain, even giving a certain charm to a character that, frankly, would be completely forgotten if he were played by another actor. Shay Hatten and Michael Finch are responsible for writing the screenplay that significantly expands the lore of the saga, but that doesn't avoid some narrative formulas that resemble a videogame structure in which, to be able to challenge the "final boss", one must first complete other minor tasks, defeat secondary villains, and obtain objects that, in the end, don't even matter that much.
John Wick: Chapter 4 regains the emotional weight that was lacking from the other sequels. At its core, it's a story of revenge and redemption without great thematic depth, but I hope that this is the definite end of the main films. The conclusion of the movie is perfect, tying up all the character arcs efficiently, and I just can't imagine a fifth installment with John Wick and Co. again that would make any sense. Nevertheless, I feel fully invested in the franchise and believe that spin-offs, in film and/or television, can achieve the same level of success. I'll be here to watch them all with my legs shaking and usual nail-biting anticipation.
John Wick: Chapter 4 concludes the game-changing saga with a relentless, ruthless action masterclass that ultimately justifies its epic length. The jaw-dropping stunts deserve the "some of the best ever" hyperbole, and the supporting cast holds brilliant additions - Donnie Yen and the Belgian Malinois dog are my MVPs. By far, the most visually striking film of all, boasting colorful cinematography that reflects the characters' spirits. Still, the importance of intricate lighting & camera work in the spectacular action set pieces is truly impressive – THAT one sequence shot from above is an all-timer. However, the original remains supreme.
Manuel's Rating: A-
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