Beautiful bedlam — Keanu Reeves cranks up the combat with John Wick: Chapter 4
Intriguing new characters and creative chaos make Chapter 4 a surprisingly strong instalment
I'll be honest.
Slumping into my seat, still groggy from my post-Oscars red-eye, I wasn't expecting much of anything from John Wick: Chapter 4. The last instalment was adequate but it felt like it was time to bring the curtain down on John Wick and his never-quenched mission of revenge.
For the record, dear reader, I was wrong. Very wrong.
Reunited again with stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski, Keanu Reeves has delivered a film audacious and artful. There's a grandiose, almost operatic quality to Wick's mission as he grits his teeth, determined to again, "kill them all."
Let's be honest — Keanu Reeves is not an actor for everything. But the John Wick franchise, which exploded onto screens in 2014, has turned out to be the perfect vehicle for his particular skill set.
Reeves is no chameleon. Unlike Meryl Streep or Kelvin Harrison Jr., he doesn't disappear into a role. Instead, like a Christopher Walken, Samuel L. Jackson or Carol Kane, there's an essence he brings to every performance.
Now approaching his sixth decade, Reeves has grown more comfortable with himself as we've grown comfortable watching him. There's a reason he's so meme-able. On the surface he may seem like a blank slate but this is the zen of Keanu. There's an honesty and authenticity to what he does.
What Reeves brings to Wick is a passion for action and martial arts. Joining forces with Chad Stahelski, who first met Reeves's as his stunt double in The Matrix, the two created the world of the High Table, where shadowy crime lords control a secret economy of assassins.
Chapter 4 finds Wick picking himself up after being left for dead. After going against the wishes of the High Table there are dire consequences for the New York Continental and its manager Winston, played by Ian McShane, as erudite and profane as ever.
The reverberations rippling through the world of Wick are driven by a personnel change. Bill Skarsgard plays The Marquis De Gramont, the new enforcer of the Table, determined to deal with Wick in a permanent fashion.
Part of the escapist thrill of the Wickiverse is how Stahelski balances the beldam with an old world charm. The High Table is a shadow realm with its own rules, codes and currency. When Wick meets to propose trial by combat, it's at a long ornate table in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, with the men drawing metallic cards to choose their weapons.
You don't stop to ponder who cut and manufactured this deadly deck, but rather pause to appreciate the satisfying "clunk" they make as Wick flips over a slab signifying pistols.
While the collection of globetrotting locations add to the atmosphere, Wick also owes a debt of gratitude to the careful casting. Consider Lance Reddick who died suddenly last week. Reddick played Charon, the concierge of the Continental who helped add a civilized air to the realm of cut-throat killers. Reeves had so much respect for Reddick he reportedly spent his birthday watching Reddick act. After the shocking news of Reddick's death, Stahelski and Reeves dedicated John Wick: Chapter Four in his memory.
The new film also welcomes new faces to the Wick world, including Toronto's Shamier Anderson as the mysterious player known only as the Tracker. In simple combat gear with his own faithful dog at his side, the Tracker stays on the fringes, watching and waiting for the right time to strike.
Martial arts legend Donnie Yen is another welcome addition, as Caine, a blind assassin forced into fighting Wick. His face obscured with sunglasses, Yen radiates charm. His fighting style is a model of economy, as he uses one hand, a stick and even a collection of doorbells to evade his attackers. Only Yen could get away with loudly slurping soup, before dispatching his enemies with speed and style.
The final element that makes the fourth film a must-see is the creativity of the combat itself. As an army of killers convene on Wick, Stahelski serves up a buffet of bedlam. For an appetizer we begin with a desert gun battle on horseback, followed by a showdown at a Japanese hotel, enemies diving and dodging in a neon-lit art gallery.
Rather than coast, Stahelski's camera dips and dives, constantly finding new waves to capture the violent ballet. In one scene we are floating over walls surveying Wick with a deadly bird's eye view. In another, we skid along the streets of Paris as Reeves whips a muscle car around the Arc de Triomphe.
There's an acute sense of physicality to what John Wick endures. With the days of Bill and Ted far behind him, you can hear Reeves's short, sharp breaths as he battles his way through the endless opponents. It's that level of commitment, not the bulletproof suits, that make the return of John Wick such a believable and enjoyable escape.