Chad Stahelski | 2hr 49min
Long before John Wick’s wife passed away, and even before his days as a professional hitman, death has been his most steadfast companion and cruellest enemy. It has bonded so close to his soul that oftentimes throughout this series he has become its literal personification, delivering swift ends to those who believe they can outmatch him. In this fourth chapter, Bill Skarsgård’s deranged villain, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont, even describes him as a ghost with nothing left to live, die, or kill for. He is only partially correct – the overwhelming desire for vengeance which motivates Wick to mow down waves of assassins often seems more a force of habit than anything else, though beneath that there is a much melancholier desire to meet his end with some humanity. Perhaps only then can he reacquaint himself with the peace he once knew during his short-lived marriage.
As a result, the purgatory-like settings that John Wick: Chapter 4 lands him in makes for a more darkly spiritual film than previous instalments, and instils the heightened stakes with an imposing formal majesty. This epic, globe-trotting narrative carries all the weight of his grand resolution to take down the High Table, which we have seen exert a divine authority all throughout the series, and which now fatefully draws him towards his final fight for freedom.
Just as significantly, director Chad Stahelski brings an astonishing creativity to each set piece along the way, delivering some of the finest action scenes in recent years. In one overhead tracking shot lasting several minutes, he slices the roof off a Parisian apartment complex and takes a gods-eye view of Wick’s violent conquest. Later as he fights his way through lanes of traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, a graphic dissolve smoothly transitions from a helicopter shot into a scaled-down model of Paris, above which the Marquis looms menacingly. From this dominant position, the High Table effectively becomes the omniscient, omnipotent god of Wick’s universe, seemingly manifesting new threats from the shadows.
Skarsgård’s wealthy narcissist clearly possesses his own violent streak, most of all evident in one scene involving a vicious hand stabbing, but he is also far less likely than those below him to carry out the dirty work. Where Keanu Reeves operates best as a dynamic physical presence and relatively minimal dialogue, Skarsgård commands entire scenes with an unnerving aristocratic charm, at home in the most opulent of Parisian settings. Eugene Delacroix’s painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ forms a stunning backdrop inside the Louvre when the Marquis accepts Wick’s duel, drawing historical parallels to the lonely hitman’s revolution against the High Table, while the Palace of Versailles and the Palais Garner also lavishly host his nefarious operations.
Stahelski is not simply leaning on his location scouting for these incredible settings, but the way he lights and frames each with such vivid attention to detail makes for some tremendous scenic backdrops. The beauty of Barry Lyndon is specifically evoked in one Russian Orthodox cathedral which basks its ornate Renaissance architecture in the warm, golden glow of candles, and seems to expand its columns infinitely upwards towards the heavens. Within this holy sanctuary, Wick’s desperate prayers take the form of underground bargains, and personal atonement is found in the restoration of old relationships.
Historical tradition may run deep in this world, and yet in Stahlelski’s vivid lighting and futurist architecture he is also constantly reminding us of the modern culture which it must compete with. Here, the influence of Nicolas Winding Refn announces itself in a huge number of expressionistic set pieces, taking us from the neon-drenched Osaka Continental Hotel to a pulsating Berlin nightclub which cascades waterfalls down multiple storeys. If the success of other John Wick films can be narrowed down to a few superb sequences, then virtually every new scene in Chapter 4 is competing with the last in pure ambition and astounding visual style.
Then there is the action choreography itself, transcending Stahelski’s passionate displays of mise-en-scène and infusing John Wick: Chapter 4 with a tactile, kinetic energy felt in every stunt and tracking shot. Nathan Orloff’s dextrous editing is certainly a highlight, but Stahelski is not afraid to sit with long takes during these fight scenes either. He and his entire cast commit to a level of practicality which is refreshing to see in an age of CGI spectacle, earning references to silent cinema genius Buster Keaton. Much like The General or Sherlock Jr, a film as brutally physical as this could have only ever been directed by an actual stunt performer who understands the incredible coordination of each set piece, creatively transcending mere back-and-forth blows between adversaries to incorporate fully interactive, constantly shifting terrains.
Clearly this is only the beginning of Stahelski’s love of cinema history though, with Chapter 4 going on to pay homage to noirs, westerns, martial arts movies, and even samurai films. These are more than just off-hand nods too, with the brand-new character of Caine playing on the trope of the blind, sword-wielding assassin, and refreshing it vibrant depth. That it is Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen in this part instils it with an even greater cultural authenticity as well, and further sets up an equal match for Reeves in physical combat.
If the Marquis is God in Chapter 4, then Caine is often framed as a reluctant angel of sorts, fulfilling his obligations to take down Wick yet occasionally bending the rules to help him where he can. It is only fitting then that the Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre offers a heavenly location for the final showdown, and that Wick must first fight his way out of the underworld and up several flights of stairs to reach it. The imagery Stahelski brings to this painstaking endeavour goes beyond Christian theology, and continues to take on the hopelessness of Sisyphus’ eternal, uphill struggle from Ancient Greek mythology. Stahelski is more than just a crafter of visceral action sequences, proving himself in astounding sequences like these to be a storyteller firmly in touch with formal structure and symbolism.
Given the modern trends of franchise filmmaking tending towards a decrease in quality with each new sequel, it is unusual and exciting to see a series like John Wick invert that and end on such a cinematic high. Stahelski has a talented team behind him, with the most notable of all being Guillermo del Toro’s frequent cinematographer Dan Laustsen, but at this point there is no doubting his credentials as an auteur who is fully engaged with refining his artistic voice and talent. With its staggering set pieces and consequential narrative stakes, John Wick: Chapter 4 is simultaneously a model of franchise filmmaking at its most effective, and a confirmation of Stahelski’s well-earned position among our great modern action directors.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is currently in theatres.