Director – Chad Stahelski – 2023 – US – Cert. 15 – 169m
** The first hour or so.
***** The last hour and a half or so.
The eponymous assassin is given a path to follow that will rid him and others of his obligations to shadowy organisation The High Table once and for all – available in Collector’s Editions, Steelbook, 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD from Monday, June 12th
The fourth episode in the John Wick franchise is not a film to come to without seeing the previous three first – and in the recent past, so they’re fresh in your memory. That was the mistake this reviewer made. Too much in the first hour or so refers back to what has gone before. Characters wander through vast urban or other sets (there’s an early sequence in the open North African desert) often spouting ponderous dialogue.
This works if you have an actor of the calibre of Ian McShane, who plays Winston, the deferential owner of the New York Continental Hotel, and, perhaps surprisingly, it also works with the franchise’s action star Keanu Reeves, who has got the delivery of grunts and one word dialogue lines (“yeah”) down to a fine art.
Even so, the surfeit of overly talky scenes in the first hour or so tends towards the tedious. So much so that, for me, the early action sequences don’t really come off. The desert horseback chase / gunfight left me cold, while a huge, stunt-packed sequence at the Osaka Continental Hotel seemed interminable. Even to someone who loves Japanese movies as much as I.
At this point, I was flashing back to earlier John Wick films, which I thought terrific, and wondering what the hell had happened. It’s the same director and star, so that clearly couldn’t be the problem.
And then, suddenly, the film kicked in. It’s a script and motivation thing – once John Wick (Reeves) is given a path to follow, I became emotionally engaged. His path: he must defeat the head of The High Table, the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård), in a duel, for which he has to be accepted back into his crime family, Ruska Roma, one of The High Table’s member organisations. Everything must be done by the book, The High Table’s arcane set of rules, and the duel is set for 6.03am, sunrise at the Sacré-Coeur in Paris. (It’s notable that the trailer covers all this, without hinting the considerable length of time the film takes to establish Wick’s path to salvation.)
The stellar cast is well deployed to create a memorable array of characters , Some of these have appeared in previous John Wick outings – covert assassin organisation manager the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), Winston;s right hand man Charon (Lance Reddick). Others are new in this film – John’s old friend the assassin Caine (Donnie Yen), the Osaka Continental’s owner Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter and assistant Akira (Rina Sawyama), assassin the Tracker (Shamier Anderson) and his faithful dog, The High Table’s unstoppable, bureaucratic administrator The Harbinger (Clancy Brown).
Skilful stuntman and action star Yen more than holds his own against Reeves as a co-star with what feels like (but probably isn’t) a similar amount of screen time. Given his pedigree in numerous Hong Kong and Chinese action movies over the years, including and Raging Fire (Benny Chan, 2021) and the Ip Man franchise (Wilson Yip, 2019, 2015, 2010, 2008), not to mention the Hollywood likes of Mulan (Niki Caro, 2020) and Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016), that’s not altogether surprising.
To get back into the good books of Ruska Roma queen Katia (Natalia Tena), Wick must kill Killa (Scott Adkins in a fat suit) and bring her proof. He finds the latter in his Berlin nightclub, a marvel of art direction (as, actually, is the entire movie) with crowds of constantly gyrating dancers filling the space as if unaware of the incredible action sequences playing out around them.
However the best is yet to come with the finale (or finales) in Paris, for which the film has the wit to introduce a smooth, talking, stylish, female radio DJ (represented in no more than close ups of hands and talking mouth) who acts as MC in between the playlist tunes announcing the ongoing whereabouts of John Wick as he approaches the Sacré-Coeur and the ever escalating (several million dollars at a time) bounty on his head – the Arc de Triomphe, a vast building with innumerable rooms, the 200+ steps to the Sacré-Coeur itself – for his duel to settle his score with the Marquis at the appointed time.
The first incredible sequence here is a fight in traffic speeding round the circular lanes of the Arc de Triomphe, with new assassins constantly appearing to best John Wick before being killed off by bullets, physical combat or car collisions.
The second, which owes much to the sequence in the thriller Snake Eyes (Brian De Palma, 1998) where the camera moves across a series of rooms in a lengthy overhead tracking shot, has the camera move across a much longer series of rooms in a far lengthier overhead tracking shot as sequences of stunt mayhem plays out as more and more assassins come out to kill John Wick.
The third has still more assassins coming, one by one, out of nowhere as John Wick, with only minutes to spare, ascends the 200+ steps to the Sacré-Coeur. Eventually, he gets there only to be pushed down the entire flight of steps and have to repeat the feat again (for me, the emotional high point of the film), with a fresh round of assassins materialising to kill him as her goes. Curiously, none of the Paris sequences feature female assassins (of which there were plenty in the Osaka sequence early on).
In short, although the movie is hard going to start with, once it works out what it’s doing and goes for it full throttle, you’ll be on the edge of your seat.
John Wick Chapter 4
John Wick Chapter 4 is available in Collector’s Editions, Steelbook, 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD from Monday, June 12th.
On digital download from Monday, May 29th.
Out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, March 24th 2023.