“None of us can escape who we are.”
This is the idea that runs throughout the “John Wick” franchise. Can a man change? Is it once a killer, always a killer? Once you’ve been encased in the assassin world, with its mythic lore and murder-chic aesthetic, can you really go straight? Is redemption – or at the very least, a few moments of peace – in the cards for John Wick (Keanu Reeves)?
Since John Wick came out of retirement following the death of his wife – and since the murder of Daisy the beagle sparked a bloody revenge tour the likes of which the world has never seen – his inability to cut ties with his hitman past has plagued him. For as much as John Wick swears he wants to be out of the game, there’s never been a moment where someone wasn’t questioning that sentiment – whether it be characters in the films, the audience, or John Wick himself. Reeves’s performance – gentle and polite one moment, breathtakingly brutal the next – helps keep that question in flux.
In “John Wick: Chapter 4,” director Chad Stahelski and writers Shay Hatten and Michael Finch take that question to its logical conclusion. Or is it the conclusion? The newest installment of the franchise ups the ante on its reliably innovative and thrilling action sequences, looking sumptuously alive at every turn. The answer to the question of John Wick’s morality is delivered to us in a ruthless, spellbindingly cinematic package and more layered than you might expect. But with the possibility of more “John Wick” sequels on the horizon, I can’t help but feel as if the franchise is trying to have its cake and eat it too.
At the beginning of the film, we find John Wick on the run, hiding underground as he prepares to exact revenge against the High Table following the events of the third film. A new villain and senior member of the Table, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) is on the hunt for Wick, sending a slew of assassins after him while Wick looks for a way to rid himself of his obligation to the High Table once and for all.
“John Wick” has always been a stellar neo-noir action series, and in the fourth installment action and beauty hit their apex. The run time of almost three hours seems to fly by, expertly paced and bolstered by a mesmerizing cinematography that’s lacking in so much franchise entertainment. Light and smoke seem to be characters all their own. Neon shades of red, green, and yellow reflect across characters’ faces and bodies, bathing them in an almost hypnotic glow that follows them even through propulsive action sequences. The “John Wick” franchise treats its fight choreography as just that – choreography. The camera is never static, gliding with the actors and stunt performers as they move, giving them all the space they need to be as explosive and kinetic as possible.
Just as the action and look of the film is reliably singular, so are the performances. Reeves plays John Wick as a man incapable of being anything more than a purely physical being, unable to express himself with anything more than his body. His face can betray empathy or understanding, and his body is beleaguered with injury, carrying years of rage and pain with him wherever he goes. But when he speaks, it’s as if the words somehow catch behind his teeth, his voice unable to express heightened emotion the way his body can.
The rest of the supporting cast, returning and new, all have the ability to match Reeves’s solemnity or counteract it with a heightened sense of camp. The assassin world of “John Wick” is filled with a maximalist quality that has no room for nuance, and its characters are no exception. As Caine, a blind assassin tasked with tracking down his old friend John Wick, Donnie Yen offers a masterclass in physicality, fighting with a blunt grace and seamlessly integrating pockets of humor into his movements. Skarsgård is lazily garish as the Marquis, eyes flashing with delight at the prospect of every new plaything that comes across his path.
The Marquis is also the character most tasked with bringing John Wick’s morality into question. Does John Wick really want to change, really want to leave the life for good? The way the Marquis sees it, John Wick can’t live without vengeance of some sort on the horizon. But is that the truth? The movie’s final moments offer a more emotionally complex answer to that question than one might expect. But the prospect of another sequel sort of pulls that punch. While the fifth installment was originally meant to be filmed immediately following the fourth, Stahelski recently said that he and Reeves have no plans to rush into a fifth movie.
I hope they live up to that promise. Don’t get me wrong – I love this franchise, and I will watch another movie if it comes out. But for all of the “John Wick” universe’s absurdities, this film found itself in a sentimental and appropriately over the top place by the end. It would be a shame to lessen that emotional blow.