Chad Stahelski cranks out a series best entry
John Wick: Chapter 4 represents the finest professionals in action cinema displaying the fullness of their talents on the biggest possible canvas, with ample budget and a clear drive to get it right; in other words, this is an action film of absolute mastery.
Undoubtedly the greatest action film of 2023 (it would take a Fury Road caliber generational masterpiece to dethrone it), Chad Stahelski, Keanu Reeves, and their 87eleven action design team appear to have set out on a mission to not only top anything that has come before in the John Wick franchise, but to set a new bar for action cinema as a whole. 87eleven are a group that is most responsible for some of the greatest action design in Hollywood’s history, and the Wick franchise is their ultimate calling card; a showreel to prove they’re the best of the best and to push filmmaking itself forward in terms of what can be done with action cinema. Stehelski and David Leitch, if I understand correctly, are the driving creative forces behind 87eleven and perhaps the biggest reason why today’s stars can appear entirely believably to be martial artists or stunt drivers or tactical weapons handlers. 87eleven is where stars go to be hooked up; trained to look like the best of the best so their faces can be onscreen and their bodies can be filmed close up doing, say… phenomenal nunchuck work, as an example. With Reeves as their poster child and A+ student, Stahelski, Leitch, and team have built their brand, and the Wick franchise, into something historic. We’re living in an era where the best cinematic action of all time is being crafted and displayed right before our eyes. It’s an embarrassment of riches. And John Wick: Chapter 4 might very well be the crowning glory of international action filmmaking glory.
For action cinema super fans, Chapter 4 feels almost like an Avengers or Expendables event film. The John Wick team has long been pulling in exciting talent from the action world to join its ranks, but here in Chapter 4 the cast of stars assembled is the best of the best. First off, Chinese sensation Donnie Yen enters the fray as Caine, a blind assassin to has something to live for, something to die for, and something to kill for. Caine is more or less a second lead in Chapter 4 and (I’m saying this as a decades long Donnie Yen fan) might very well be one of Donnie’s best roles of his career. Yen is a global phenomenon, and yet he’s never quite been able to flex in a Western production the way he does here. British action phenom Scott Adkins (the patron saint of Action Twitter), was also cast as Killa, a monstrous creation of a character who stands in Wick’s way and is a central antagonist to a portion of Wick’s journey. The biggest role Adkins has had in a franchise of this scale outside of perhaps Expendables 2, he’s here given a true character actor role to sink his teeth into and nails a colorfully menacing performance to add to his growing resume. Chilean star Marko Zaror also has a meaty role as Chidi, the right hand man of Bill Skaarsgard’s Marquis, and a representative of the high table. There’s several opportunities for Zaror to shine, and his antagonist won’t be put down easily. Zaror shines across a couple of the film’s biggest set pieces including a Frogger-like sequence of automotive chaos and a scene involving… a staircase that rivals The Exorcist in its soon-to-be-iconic status. And those are just the cast I was extremely excited about prior to seeing the film. You’ve also got the legendary Hiroyuki Sanada, pop star Rina Sawayama, Shamier Anderson, and Clancy Brown himself taking on meaty roles in this latest installment of the franchise.
But let’s get into the story. The John Wick franchise has become a phenomenon for several reasons, and the top tier action is just one of them. It’s also a wonderfully written series that takes place in a world of heightened reality and physics, in which global crime cabals sit at high tables, rules of decorum trump all, and bullet proof suits allow our characters to keep fighting through supernatural odds. Writers Shay Hatten and Michael Finch (based on Derek Kolstad’s characters) are able to incorporate all of the clever world building and rules and quirks of John Wick’s world to build a story that might primarily exist to string together epic action sequences, but which also infuses a heart and a “why” behind John Wick’s actions that may have been a little lacking in more recent installments of the franchise. With his wife and his dog gone, John Wick, the Boogeyman, came out of retirement and began wreaking havoc on the underworld. His quest for vengeance seems to have no end, and Chapter 4 asks the question: without a family, is John Wick anything more than a killing machine who is just prolonging getting his ticket punched? Why does he fight? What purpose does he serve? Who is John Wick? You’re likely not coming to this franchise for nuance, but you have to care about the story to care about the action set pieces, and Chapter 4 is the best in the series when it comes to caring about the stakes and rooting for the major players we are invested in.
But it’s time to throw off the kid gloves and get into some honest hype. John Wick: Chapter 4 is simply one of the greatest action films of this generation, and perhaps of all time. Yes, yes, a reader would do well to take into account the phenomenon of festival hype as I caught the North American premiere at SXSW and Stahelski and Reeves were in the audience, which applauded raucously throughout the film. Noted. But I’m coming to you as an action film connoisseur and hopeless addict who’s been following international action cinema for decades of my life. And I’m here to tell you that movies like John Wick: Chapter 4 almost never come into being. This movie looks so incredible, you’ll almost feel like you’re in the Blade Runner universe aesthetically. The set design, the lighting, the cinematography, the pulsing techno soundtrack… it all makes a huge difference. An aesthetic masterwork that is no mistake. Then there’s the aforementioned writing, which is tonally on point, keeping us laughing and cheering and rooting for our characters. Next up is the fact that this is a 4th entry in a franchise that has meticulously laid out its rules for engagement. We need no exposition any longer. Suits just block bullets. Dogs just are sacred. Violence just should not take place on Continental grounds.
In its 2 hour and 50 minute runtime, John Wick: Chapter 4 represents the supreme confidence of masters in their field putting forth career best work from top to bottom, with the budget to give them freedom, and the established fan base ravenous for what they’ll bring us next. It seems from stylists to set designers to stars and choreographers, everyone agreed to leave it all on the screen this time out, and from set piece to set piece (the nunchucks, the stairs, the mother fucking “dragon’s breath” bullets), I found myself getting goosebumps of awe as masters of the craft revealed their handiwork to their audience. I’m not sure Chapter 4 is a game changer in the way something like Fury Road was, pointing us to a previously unknowable future, but it does represent a culmination of what action cinema has been able to achieve in this latest era and throws down a gauntlet to anyone else working anywhere in the world today to try and top what Stahelski, Reeves, and team have accomplished in this stunning and thrilling epic.
And I’m Out.
John Wick: Chapter 4 hits theaters March 24th, 2023