I’ve read the praise. I have heard the chants. In fact, it has been almost impossible to miss the glowing acclaim laid at the feet of the newest addition to the John Wick series, subtitled succinctly as just Chapter 4 in a departure from what seemed like a trend of adding a subtitle to the subtitle its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum brandished with glee. Therefore, as someone whose relationship with this series has been consistently underpinned by non-plussed ambivalence occasionally dipping into frustrated disbelief at how well it continues to be received, I decided to give this movie a chance.
I uncrossed my arms, sat up and opened my mind to the experience which – I was promised – was steeped in heroic bloodshed, dripping with cultural references, and most of all, saluted the good old-fashioned stunt-based action filmmaking I happen to be particularly fond of as an ageing millennial who came of age right at the time when practical stuntmanship was slowly becoming supplanted by CGI wizardry. I did my part. Though, I am not sure the movie did its part of the deal, to be perfectly honest.
So, the lights went down and the movie started by – predictably at this point – dropping me right into the thick of things, with people on horseback chasing one another in the desert and shooting at each other with familiar asymmetry in accuracy. Does it matter why? Not in the slightest. To be frank, the entire movie just narratively snowballs from the previous instalment, which snowballed from the one before it, which snowballed from the one before it, where it all began with John Wick coming out of assassin retirement because a bunch of yobs took his car and killed his dog.
Yes, I know. Shoosh. I know the dog was a gift from beyond the grave. But it was a decade ago. I suppose this could be a subtle commentary on the senselessness of violence and the electricity flowing through the circuitry of humankind, but I think I shall hold any accusations of philosophical poignancy in reserve for the time being. Because, despite the allure of its world-building and thematic elements clearly drawing from how The Matrix series has assembled its own mythology, John Wick in its fourth incarnation is a spectacle predominantly interested in the viscera of stuntmanship and the bravado of set piece engineering.
Thus, the movie aptly dispenses with much of usually protracted scene-setting and expository prep work to make way for what both the viewers and the filmmakers are interested in the most – action. Following a brief introduction to who seems to be the big baddie of the film, the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård), and the subsequent destruction of the New York Continental Hotel, the story of John Wick’s vendetta against The High Table takes the viewer around the globe with a few formidable pit stops in Osaka and later on in Paris, where – before squaring off against the Marquis, John will have to face Cain (Donnie Yen), a blind assassin keen to redeem himself, as well as Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson), a bounty hunter who occasionally seems ready to help John along, as though to spite the man at the top.
But this doesn’t matter either, does it? In fact, contrary to popular belief, neither the mythology nor the narrative cushioning laid alongside the plotline in the John Wick movies ever mattered more than to excuse the characters indulging in intricately designed action set pieces and showing off their gun fu prowess. Appropriately, John Wick: Chapter 4 is mostly comprised of such complex sequences which pin the viewer onto Keanu Reeves’ shoulder as he invincibly ploughs through legions of opponents in an increasingly preposterous manner. However, this is not a dig against the film itself. At this point – four instalments in – I damn well expect it to outperform its predecessors in terms of grandiosity of its set pieces, the audacity of its stuntmanship and the collective complexity of the action as a whole. And, undoubtedly, the movie truly succeeds in this regard. It is a visually resplendent eye-candy that mesmerizes with its neon-washed locales and discombobulates with the sheer scale and aspiration of what it attempts to do action-wise; which is exactly what you’d expect from a new addition to any other long-running action series, like Mission: Impossible or The Fast and the Furious.
However, as time went on, John Wick movies began to distinguish themselves from the crop of other non-CBM actioners by way of elevating their world-building and drifting ever closer to perhaps fit within the optics of a post-Wachowski aesthetic, rather than anything else, which is where Chapter 4 fits rather snugly. With the combined bravura of its actioneering and the heightened visual identity seemingly inspired by anime, samurai movies, westerns and much more, Chad Stahelsky’s new (and perhaps temporarily final) addition to this series makes a conscious attempt to position the series as the torchbearer of the legacy of The Matrix series. Which is where many my own personal bugbears with this film and the series as a whole may be located.
You will have to forgive me, but despite my best intentions – and for the record I did watch this movie with my arms consciously and purposefully uncrossed, and with my mind open wide enough for it to comfortable fall out on the floor – John Wick: Chapter 4 suffers from the same problems its predecessors did. The central character of John Wick continues to be a dramatically hollow avatar whose motivations simply don’t validate the idea of spending so much time and effort on what simply amounts to a globe-spanning murder spree. I’m sorry but even when they took his car and killed his dog, the whole thing looked like a vast over-reaction on his behalf, which is now so laughably distant that it simply does not matter why he’s doing what he’s doing. In fact, I don’t even know if I cared to remember who the Marquis was supposed to represent and why The High Table, The Elders and the excommunicados mattered in the first place, so long as the movie trotted along from one action sequence to another. Which is what it did.
Unfortunately, I don’t necessarily believe the filmmakers cared about the dramatic underpinnings of this narrative either. Consequently, all those thematic winks to Greek myths, nods to heroic bloodshed, samurai ethos, honour among thieves and everything else in between that seems carefully plucked out of the popular culture for me to playfully bask in, functions only superficially. The world effectively does not exist in this movie, nor in its predecessors, beyond what’s in the frame. This entire world-building is merely a distillation of tropes that don’t elevate the story in any appreciable way. They are distractions meant to create an illusion of depth that simply does not exist, as though it was embarrassing to admit that the movie was narratively simple. Which it is.
Yes – John Wick: Chapter 4 is a rollercoaster ride of visually-elevated action rooted in stuntmanship and gunplay. Yes – it is saturated with cultural references, and it could be seen as a treasure hunt for those willing to look for winks and nods to great movies, works of art and philosophical concepts. But… this movie is eerily weightless because the stakes of the central character don’t match the scale of his actions and whatever he goes through comes across as performative and inconsequential. John Wick in this fourth addition to the series remains conveniently invincible until it becomes convenient for him to be fallible. He only interacts with the outside world to the extent that is convenient. Just as it was previously completely unproblematic to stage a shootout in a crowd where bystanders would simply fail to notice what was happening, in here the tradition continues. People continue to dance around fighting characters until it is convenient for the story to have them flee in terror. Parisian pedestrians seem nonplussed at the sight of carnage on the street, just as an expansive action set piece complete with multiple car crashes and casualties makes no difference to the traffic at the infamous Arc De Triomphe roundabout. The characters can easily set up private conversations and showdowns at iconic tourist attractions and nobody is ever seen in the background walking a dog or setting up a stand with fake Gucci bags for sale. And that’s because the movie just doesn’t take place in any tangible reality, even though it looks as though it wanted to. It takes place in an imitation of reality. In the Matrix.
Hence, the weightlessness. I truly appreciate the aspiration behind the movie and the effort put in assembling its constituent set pieces into a nearly three-hour-long spectacle run on high-octane gas, movie magic, pop-cultural acumen and good intentions, but the sum total of what John Wick: Chapter 4 is on a technical level is not matched dramatically by the story. I am sorry to inform you, but John Wick is not Neo, and his strife lacks the gravity to convince me to suspend my disbelief and join the masses in what seems to be unanimous praise towards the movie. It is undoubtedly an eye-candy, but its coolness is too superficial to fully get on board with.
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