“You’re now in the presence of the motherfucking King,” announces rotund Laurence Fishburne with orotund flourish as he reenters the mythology of John Wick as the anarchist Bowery King who knows the necessary intelligence of the larger world, a stout, charismatic Buddha who knows what to fix and how it gets fixed. He’s a professional. And moments later: director Chad Stahelski captures the King blowing out a matchstick, with a match-cut to a simmering sun across desert reaches, just like in “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Just like a king: confidence, not hubris. All the fu, all the time, nonstop-fu, sad Keanu-fu, almost three hours-fu. The grim fairytale “John Wick: Chapter 4” is relentless: the world, this world, wishes to kill simple, unostentatious assassin John Wick. His dog and wife left far behind. Wick has offended the arcane rules of a reigning society that cannot bear the odor of any form of resistance. (Like Congress, but with sharper suits, boisterous kicks, spins and effective weaponry.)
The extended elegy for cooperation and community takes only a couple of deep breaths in a trajectory from its imagined Manhattan to fictional Osaka to assassin-seething Paris. (The cast is large and agreeable; the costumes always sharp or sleek.) The legerdemain of the “High Table” runs a few degrees shy of balderdash, but backstory outside of the organization’s essentials is still almost nonexistent. “He is a ghost looking for a graveyard,” is that not enough for you?
Wick’s a walker, or a Walker, to hark back to John Boorman’s seminal thriller, “Point Blank,” in which monosyllabic, dead-undead Lee Marvin’s character, Walker, dream-walks through 1967 Los Angeles night and bright daylight, sharp-suited, bullet-domed, in restless forward motion, looking to collect a debt from mobsters who have cheated him out of only a few tens of thousands of dollars.
The bounty on Wick’s head runs into the tens of millions as “Chapter 4” makes its malefic progress through setpiece after setpiece; it’s not only a Keanunami, it’s a tidal wave of assault, with kill after overkill in balletic attack.
Dark times for John Wick: a dark palette that begins in teal and vertigris explores the expressive limits of widescreen frames and settings where decor is peeled away, a neutral backdrop where sumptuous settings are replaced by foreground frenzy. With unapologetic formalism, here’s a plenitude of bumptious bodily dispatch, geometric spatter and roseate headshots.
It’s heavy stuff: Keanu’s killer smile was left many killer confrontations ago. Wick’s weary and Reeves excels at the syllabification of single syllables, or sepulchral intonations sufficing as line readings. One of the longest lines almost requires fresh forms of annotation to capture the nuance Reeves can wreak from near-nonsense, “I’m, going, to, kill, them all.” (And the richly inhabited single-word sentences: “Pistols,” he says.)
Grace lies in the assembled teams’ assurance: the team onscreen and the team behind the camera. Hot lead, honor and haberdashery: style burns.
There is a passage a couple of hours in where the movie slows ever so slightly—dare it become boring?—but it is only in preparation for a set of deliriously extended long takes, drawing from the University of De Palma. Inside a dark, dirty chateau in some dark, dirty stretch of Paris, the camera observes from on high the first floor of the building, and goes berserk, at first suggestive of De Palma’s stately, deliberate speed of a God’s-eye shot in so many of his movies, such as “Snake Eyes” and “Femme Fatale,” but with the glib glide of a robot, as if from the flick of a wrist from a mechanical controller.
Yet almost immediately, its amok rapidity betrays a wry human hand with the explosive doings beneath the camera’s eye: concussive, incendiary detonations from a brute shotgun light up Wick’s ranks of featureless adversaries, furniture and wallpaper and devils burst into flame. The crane glides, sprawls, measures the space for what seems minutes on end, another stuntman detonates, the camera’s angel gaze charts another room, another, another functionary dispatched. The cumulative man-hours to realize this result must measure in the thousands.
There’s a profile of Reeves from a few years back—Esquire? GQ?—where the writer expresses confoundment at Reeves’ devotion to training and stunt-building, and Keanu replies with mild surprise he has to explain, and says something like, “This is my job.”
And this is the work.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” is now playing.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.