2014: Keanu Reeves appears as the black suit-wearing assassin in mourning, John Wick, in the Derek Kolstad-written, Chad Stahelski/David Leitch-co-directed John Wick. A film which, originally, was headed for direct-to-video release and has now spawned a franchise with a television spin-off, The Continental, set for release this year and cinematic spin-off, Ballerina, set for 2024. No one at the time realized how the story of one man’s grief interrupted by hubris would turn into what it is now: a showcase of action for all involved that pays continuous homage of what came before. As Wick himself states in Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019), these films were never about the dog, but about Wick’s inability to live in peace so as to remember his wife who died prior to the franchise’s start. Now, with Stahelski’s Chapter 4, Wick’s story would seem to be at an end, one which satisfies no matter how one chooses to interpret it. With it out on home video, audiences are invited to not only (re)visit the film, but to explore its making through extensive featurettes looking at everything from the stunts, character creation, homages, and more.
Six months since Winston (Ian McShane) shot John Wick (Reeves), knocking him off the roof of the New York Continental and onto the street below, and John is back on his feet and looking for vengeance against the High Table itself. However, in his time recuperating, the High Table has not been stagnant, assigning the task of dealing with Wick to The Marquis (Bill Skarsgård), who shows no mercy to friend or foe. But it’s not just The Marquis who Wick must confront, but an old friend tasked with removing Wick from the board, resulting in alliances being drawn, friendships being challenged, and the rules of engagement being pushed to the limit.
Though this is an initial film review for Elements of Madness, as the film released in March of this year and has been available on home video for a bit, to explore this film, spoilers will be dropped. I will be of service, but I will not serve.
There are two ways to explore Chapter Four: through the narrative and as an action film. A strength to this series is how often the action functions to strengthen the narrative rather than just serving as a box to be checked. In each film, the action sequences and stunt work are amplified, finding new ways to entertain without losing sight of what matters. It’s because of this that the finale to the film feels earned, presenting a fitting denouement for the series. It’s because of this that the notion that John Wick has been fighting his way from purgatory through hell all the way to the steps of heaven in order to confront G-d – a battle that begins the moment that Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) decided to steal a car and ends with the final distribution of consequences – is cemented. He was lost in his grief, pulled back in the underworld in his quest for retribution, but, in dipping his pinky back in, was snatched by Riccardo Scamarcio’s Santino D’Antonio (representing Lucifer) in Chapter Two, requiring him to take on the Devil and then face g-d in Chapter 3 (Saïd Taghmaoui’s The Elder). One can enjoy the Wick films as individual action tales or as an American monument to global cinema, but it’s this richness of a narrative that makes these films, and the ending here in Chapter Four, rapturous in the observation. John Wick, nicknamed Baba Yaga, is rumored to have completed an impossible task in order to retire the first time, and it’s across these four chapters that he does it again, a man of such iron will and determination that not even jumping out of a window several stories off the ground, bouncing off the roof of a van, and slamming into the street will prevent him from missing a target. Throughout these films, we’ve seen Wick accomplish Herculean tasks and feats of impossibility and remain standing as though it would require Lucifer himself or the hand of G-d to halt his actions. Never more than in the script crafted by Michael Finch (November Man) and Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) is this true and, in epic fashion, everything that occurred before has led to this exact destination, creating within the narrative a sense of pre-destination and inevitability.
When we arrive at the end of a story (i.e. Chapter Four), that’s when the challenges grow the toughest and when the weaknesses in our protagonist are laid bare. Wick is lethal in just about every form of combat, none as fiercely as when he has a gun in his hand, his laser-focused determination seemingly transforming him into an indomitable force. However, in Chapter 4, we’re reminded that Wick did not live in this shadow world without connections and that his actions carry consequences that ripple out. We’ve gotten pieces here and there in each of the films through Willem Dafoe’s Marcus, John Leguizamo’s Aurello, Common’s Cassian, and Halle Berry’s Sofia, each with their own implied weight and meaning, but here the consequences come home in ways that require the story to branch out to places like the Jordanian desert; Osaka, Japan; and Paris, France. Each new location introduces a new face to us and an old friend or acquaintance to Wick; each sequence is an escalation of something Wick has faced in the preceding chapters, a move by Finch and Hatten that cultivates a sense of ongoing pressure, even when all that’s occurring is a conversation. These are the last days of Wick, so the film tells us over and over, and, narratively, the script propels Wick (and us) with blinding speed toward the endgame, an endgame that would be far more satisfying in the conclusion if not for the announcement of a fifth chapter to come.
There is truly nothing worse in art than business.
You cannot look at a film like Chapter Four and not see art. It’s in the homages to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), zatōichi cinema, Shaw Brothers Studio, Sammo Hung, and more. This film, like its predecessors, is built on the shoulders of all the films that’ve come before, picking and choosing the right ways in which to integrate them into their narrative. This leads to a lot of moments in the film that look incredible from the production design, set design, costuming, and cinematography, but are also evocative to the viewer in their physicality. Nothing is wasted, even if the viewer grows exhausted well before the runtime is met. There’s not a portion of Chapter Four which is not specific in its intentionality, no aspect that Stahelski didn’t design or approve himself without exploring what it means to the narrative and within the whole of cinema history. It’s an absolute fluke that John Wick didn’t go the DTV route, but there’s nothing on camera that suggests art is absent on any level of the production. Yet, despite this, resurrection of one form or another will always occur when the almighty dollar demands it. Because of this, the beauty of the conclusion loses just a little bit of the impact as we now know how to interpret the final scene of the film, thereby lessening its impact and Wick’s journey. Truly, by the end of Chapter Four, Hell is behind him and G-d is defeated, what could possibly stand in his way?
In addition to the ruined satisfaction, another aspect that troubles me about Chapter Four is the structuring of some of the stunts. It’s not the technical aspects of the fisticuffs, they remain some of the best in the business. The issues are two-fold and they dove-tail into each other: things we’ve seen before and cannon fodder. Chapter Two sees Wick try to survive a glut of hitpeople going after him due to the contract Santino D’Antonio puts on him. Then Chapter Three opens with Wick on the run from every hitperson imaginable, and it’s glorious. Here, it happens again, but at the end. It’s incredible to see Wick face off against The Marquis’s men and the soldiers of the High Table because they pose a challenge, but the rest? How many people need to die before any of these idiots realize that overpowering Wick face-to-face isn’t going to happen? Marcus and the newly introduced Tracker (Shamier Anderson) have the right idea: shoot him from a hidden spot. That would, of course, result in a much shorter story, but it’s the smart play. This film refuses to kill Wick by conventional (and arguably unconventional) means, which results in finding frustration when it reuses the same tricks. Combine that with sequences that exhaust the audience well before they do Wick, and staying checked in on the long fight toward the end of Chapter Four is an act of sheer will itself. It doesn’t help that the bumper car shootout around the Arc de Triomphe is so obviously CGI crafted and that the car Wick steals is unrealistically flexible, the line between mythos and make believe grows clearer by the moment. (Look, if Wick were driving his own car, one that was owned by a member of his peers, or stolen from one of the High Table’s people, I’d buy it, but I’ve seen enough action films to know that cannon fodder don’t have the kind of cars necessary for these tricks.)
If you’re interested in the bonus materials, see below for details on what’s included with the physical and digital releases. If you’re any kind of Wick fan, there’s going to be something in here for you. Personally, going through these gave me a newfound respect for what Stahelski and Reeves have accomplished with this series, as well as a greater appreciation for what it takes to make these films. In particular, Donnie Yen discusses the creation of his character Caine, the welcoming discussions about shifting him from the original concept to what’s on screen, and the way in which Stahelski and Reeves opened themselves to his approach solidifies why these two creatives understand the importance of collaboration in making an action film. No ego means better stunts, which often means greater audience satisfaction.
A large part of me hopes that Chapter Five is cancelled. If that’s the case, I’ll likely change my scoring on this film because so much of the satisfaction is in the execution of the thematic ending for this four-part narrative. What we get has weight, offers gravitas, and delivers a conclusive moment to the story of the unretired assassin who only wanted to grieve the loss of his wife, who only wanted to remember her. He did not want back in and to drag him back just to put butts in seats feels disgraceful to what the narrative has accomplished.
Let him rest. He’s earned it.
John Wick: Chapter 4 Special Features:
- Chad and Keanu: Through Wick and Thin: Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves have a partnership that stretches all the way back to the first Matrix film. In this retrospective piece, we trace their remarkable friendship and decades-long collaboration.
- Train Like a Killer: Weapons Master Robert “Rock” Galotti and Keanu Reeves reveal the rigorous training that Keanu had to endure to make John Wick: Chapter 4 a reality – from gunplay, to jiu jitsu, to some hard-hitting stunt work.
- Making A Killing: In John Wick, sets are not merely the backdrop for each scene – they are integral parts of the action, with Wick often using whatever is on hand to take the fight to his enemies. Here we explore the craft at play in designing the sets of John Wick: Chapter 4 and the ways set design and action choreography go hand in hand in this legendary series.
- The Psychology of a Killer: Chad Stahelski explores the psychology of John Wick, a character who, despite four films, is still a mystery in many ways. We unpack the complicated code of ethics that Wick lives by, and the ironic bonds he shares with the men trying to kill him.
- The Blind Leading the Fight: John Wick: Chapter 4 witnesses the arrival of Caine, a blind killer played by legendary actor and martial artist Donnie Yen. With a style not seen since The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Caine shows that a killer’s greatest instincts come not from his eyes, but from his mind. Here we uncover Yen’s journey on this film, exploring his prep for the role, his insight into the character, and his intense training regimen to portray this unlikely killer.
- Suit Up / Shoot Up: Costume Designer Paco Delgado uncovers the cooler-than-cool suits worn by the assassins of John Wick that feature bulletproof lining – just what every killer needs for a night out on the town. We also explore the more refined looks of the Marquis and the Old West-inspired garb of the Tracker.
- Packing a Punch: Pulling off a kill takes a village. Get a behind-the-scenes look at the way Team Wick incorporates special effects into the practical stunts and locations of the film.
- One Killer Shot: John Wick: Chapter 4 features one of the boldest single-take shots ever attempted in action filmmaking. Fight Choreographers Jeremy Marinas and Laurent Demianoff team up with Stunt Coordinator Scott Rogers to dive into the creative challenges that went into planning this one-shot sequence that sees John Wick take on Paris’s deadliest killers.
- Killing at the Speed of Traffic: Take a look at a nonstop action sequence featuring John Wick’s car-fu at the Arc de Triomphe! The driving force of this piece will be a look at the effects achieved at the iconic location, and sets the stakes of every assassin in Paris descending on Wick.
- A Shot in the Dark: The John Wick series takes audiences into a world that is both thematically and visually dark. For film crews, that meant enduring hundreds of night shoots, with crews switching to a virtually nocturnal mode of life for long stretches of production. Here we explore the tenacious work of cast and crew members who tough it out night after night in pursuit of Wick’s dark, iconic aesthetic. Along the way, we explore some of the most iconic night scenes in the film, culminating with Wick’s brutal staircase fight.
- In Honor of the Dead: In creating John Wick: Chapter 4, Chad Stahelski drew on references from some of the greatest films ever made. Uncover the cinematic homages depicted in the film, from David Lean to John Woo, to the samurai epics of post-war Japan.
- Theatrical Trailer 1
- Theatrical Trailer 2
Available on digital May 23rd, 2023.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD June 13th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Lionsgate John Wick: Chapter 4 website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.