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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

"John Wick: Chapter 4" knows how to top itself

The first "John Wick" movie has a simplicity that almost seems unrecognizable next to its sequels, but it's that simplicity that almost guaranteed it a solid following, both for action fans as well as those who want to get in on the ground floor of creating a kind of cult movie that would endure for years. Some gangsters kill a man’s dog, not knowing he’s an ex-hitman. Man gets revenge. Nice and easy, and with Keanu Reeves in the titular role, a breezy 101-minute runtime and a violent streak running through its veins, the film had instant appeal, paving the way for three more sequels, each one expanding the “John Wick” universe and each one doubling down on the hyper-kinetic violence that knows no limits to how one can get bludgeoned to death. The only limit is Wick himself, who while not technically a superhero, certainly possesses some kind of superpower that renders him immune from falling to his death, hitting several balconies and dumpsters on the way down. Like Jason Voorhees, he just gets right back up and continues killing people.

Now comes “John Wick: Chapter 4,” and by this time I feel I have seen my fair share of these movies. Three feels like enough (oh, how I miss the simplicity of a trilogy), but the cult demands a fourth, since one cannot end a series on a cliffhanger and not deliver closure. I’m sure there are those who follow the mythology of “John Wick” movies closely, paying attention to each character and motivation, but damn if I can remember who’s who or what’s what from movie to movie. I have seen each film exactly one time each and have come away from each of them numb from the violence, but with admiration for Reeves’ performances and for the films’ rapid fire technique. I will always–always!--prefer my action scenes to be depicted in real time and with great ferocity over the constant cutting to slo-mo, which could explain why I didn’t gravitate toward last year’s “RRR” as much as everyone else did. My expectations seemed reasonable going into “John Wick: Chapter 4.”

Those expectations had been met (in a good way) during the first hour-and-a-half or so of this 169-minute film. Then came the big chase scene in the streets of Paris, which felt like the film’s centerpiece. Actually, director Chad Stahelski and his writers were just warming up. “John Wick: Chapter 4” ends with a triple-decker, extended action sequence that more than justifies what appears to be a bloated running time that, in and of itself, feels like a stunt. It’s not. The car chase becomes more than a car chase. It feels as gleeful and imaginative as some of the set pieces in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Like George Miller before him, Stahelski has the smarts to not introduce certain action elements at the beginning of the film that might pay off later. No, he saves some of the best ideas for last, executing the action with such fluidity and vision, they will be studied and imitated for years to come.

The events leading up to it makes for a fun movie on its own, but not a particularly unique one. At the end of the third film, Wick was shot and fell down from the rooftop of a tall building, but miraculously survived (of course) and now the bounty on him grows more and more. Among those hunting him down are Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind hitman who used to work alongside Wick, and Tracker (Shamier Anderson), a bounty hunter who travels with a loyal canine who responds to certain commands, such as “Balls!” and “Kill!” The villain here, Marquis (Bill Skarsgard), naturally has every resource and financial luxury at his disposal and will stop at almost nothing to see Wick killed. Yes, almost nothing. With Wick dodging every army of assassins at every turn, the price on his head gets higher and higher and, like all Elon Musk-inspired criminals these days, he hesitates at the thought of having to pay Tracker $30 million instead of $25 million. Judging by his art collection, he can clearly afford it.

Many characters remain part of the universe and all play a vital role in Wick’s life, including the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and Winston (Ian McShane), who must answer to Marquis for losing Wick even though he clearly shot him and Wick clearly fell several stories to what appeared to be his demise. For that perceived incompetence, Winston loses his hotel and now must correct his mistake. Meanwhile, no matter where Wick goes, he is both welcomed and shunned, presuming he brings with him a slew of deadly assassins who will find him wherever he goes and will result in a violent conflict. No one can see this more than Akira (Rina Sawayama), the daughter of Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada), another high-end hotel owner who has a past with Wick.

None of this is particularly new, but it remains fun to see how Stahelski and his team continue to try and breathe some new life into the action. The well-dressed team of assassins here seem to have a kind of metal under their suits that prevent them from getting hit by bullets, but we never get to see it (a wise choice). Caine has played a superior, blind fighter before (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), but his commitment to the role becomes staggering to watch in some of the more extended sequences where you completely buy into the idea of him using all his other senses to aid in the fight, not to mention a very funny prop. There are also fights at large raves, fountains, glass art museums and various other locations that I’d rather not give away. Much of the brutality in the choreography is stuff we’ve seen many times before, but there still exists some joy in there that gives the fans everything they want, while cinephiles can enjoy homages and references to, among other things, the most famous edit from “Lawrence of Arabia.” And I almost forgot to mention the brilliant use of literal needle-drops.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” probably shouldn’t have been this good, but like the “Mission: Impossible” movies, it somehow knew how to top itself this late in the game. Reeves and the rest of the cast don’t look too tired from it. Screenwriters Shay Hatten, Michael Finch and Derek Kolstad try to give their dialogue-driven scenes as much punch as they can so the actors who never get to fight still get to have some of the fun. Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen, likewise, give every new setting its own gorgeous color palette, so as not to have the film wallow in the usual pure darkness and rain-soaked streets. “John Wick: Chapter Four” will certainly be remembered for that last hour, but there’s also no need to skip past everything else. In fact, you should probably enjoy this on the biggest screen possible and with the Friday night crowd. This is why we watch movies in the theater. It’s the simplest of pleasures. Don’t cheat yourself.

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