you're reading...
-[Film Reviews]-, English Language Film Industries, Hollywood

‘John Wick 4’ (2023): Action Filmmaking Triumphant

Directed by: Chad Stahelski || Produced by: Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee, Chad Stahelski

Screenplay by: Shay Hatten, Michael Finch || Starring: Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård, Laurence Fishburne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shamier Anderson, Lance Reddick, Rina Sawayama, Scott Adkins, Ian McShane

Music by: Tyler Bates, Joel R. Richard, Le Castle Vania || Cinematography: Dan Laustsen || Edited by: Nathan Orloff || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 169 minutes

Chad Stahelski’s John Wick (2014, 2017, 2019) franchise has grown from its meager, somewhat overlooked 2014 box office success into one of the most well regarded franchises of the 2010s. The intellectual property’s sheer consistency rivals that of any big-budget Hollywood blockbuster franchise, chump-budget horror series, or obscure arthouse titles from anywhere in the globe. It long ago exceeded the Indonesian New Wave action films (e.g. The Night Comes for Us [2019]) popularized by Gareth Evans’ The Raid (2011, 2014), not to mention the best of Korea’s modern crime thrillers (e.g. Oldboy [2003], I Saw the Devil [2010], The Wolf Brigade [2018]) in terms of both action variety as well as sheer audiovisual style. Its lush yet never obnoxious global crime syndicate mythology, born from screenwriter Derek Kolstad, melded with cinematographers’ Jonathan Sela and Dan Laustsen’s beautiful, neon-infused neo-noir photography to create a unique, identifiable diegetic tone; combine all the aforementioned with some of the most effective, memorable action sequences that reference everything from John Woo’s shoot-’em-ups (e.g. The Killer [1989], Hard-Boiled [1992]) to later descendants of The Matrix (1999; see Equilibrium [2022]) to Jackie Chan (e.g. Police Story [1985]) to Italian Spaghetti westerns (e.g. Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy [1964-1966]) to Hollywood Golden Age slapstick (e.g. Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton), and you have a winning formula for the mainstream rebirth of American cinematic violence.

Top: Reeves counters shock trooper body armor with up-close and personal ballistics in the Osaka Continental. Middle: Reeves pursues a high ranking crime boss through the colorful architecture of a Berlin nightclub. Bottom: At least a dozen assassins await Reeves at the steps below the Sacré-Cœur in JW4’s finale.

While the original film’s uncredited codirector, David Lietch, later carved a hybrid path between likeminded, mid-budgeted action films (e.g. Atomic Blonde [2017], Bullet Train [2022]) and FX-driven blockbusters (e.g. Deadpool 2 [2018], Hobbs & Shaw [2019]) after the first Wick, and Kolstad departed after Wick 3 to write another American gun-fu flick, Nobody (2021), Stahelski has since commanded the career resurgence of star Keanu Reeves through all four series installments. The latest, John Wick 4 (henceforth, JW4), rivals the original in terms of its emotional impact and character development while exceeding all other franchise entries in terms of set-piece consistency and scale; put in simplest terms, JW4 rivals the likes of Mission: Impossible Fallout (2018), the original Raid, and even Fury Road (2015) as the best action film since the turn of the millennium.

This third sequel’s script, courtesy of Wick 3 cowriter Shay Hatten and newcomer Michael Finch, paces one of the most ambitious run times in modern genre cinema if it bares any resemblance to the finished product. At 169 minutes long and orchestrated around three distinct, violent centerpieces that anchor each act, JW4 supersedes the likes of similarly grounded yet mammoth-sized action films like No Time to Die (2021; 163 minutes in length) or The Dark Knight Rises (2012; 165 minutes in length); to say it doesn’t feel its length is an understatement given how smooth the transitions between each of the three primary backdrops — Osaka, Berlin, Paris — feel and how well the prologue and epilogue open and close the film, respectively. Part of this smooth pacing is a result of the audiovisual variety of each set-piece, but equal credit goes to the logical narrative progression of each fight sequence, where individual confrontations lead into one another like a smartly designed videogame level.

Besides the film’s excellent story structure, character building for both major and minor roles unfolds organically across the violent backdrop; dialogue is succinct, clever, and to the point, while newer characters performed by Bill Skarsgård, Donnie Yen, Shamier Anderson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Marko Zaror, and Scott Adkins (… damn, that’s a good ensemble) leave a mark, all while contributing to the satisfying arc of Reeves’ title character.

As for that much lauded action cinematography, Stahelski designs realistic yet dynamic action sequences with a powerhouse stunt team whom Laustsen captures with a variety of lighting FX and motion-controlled as well as handheld camerawork. Flourishes like slow-motion (e.g. the Berlin Himmel und Hölle club sequence) or long-takes (e.g. the overhead drone tracking shot in the elongated Paris chase) are used sparingly, which heightens their visceral impact (for mis/overuses of the former, see your typical South Indian action film; for mis/overuses of the latter, see the later career work of Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Iñárritu). The franchise’s much lauded choreography, sound-design, stuntwork, and physical comedy returns, but the scale of every set-piece is larger (e.g. teams of opposing combatants, more expansive indoor sets, etc.) in ways that don’t dilute the cinematic violence. Top that off with Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard’s effective guitar-driven score, as well as multiple electronic tracks by series’ collaborator Le Castle Vania, and JW4’s combat fires on all cylinders. 

And now for the most interesting part of any positive film review: What’s “bad” about the movie? Perhaps the most noticeable issue is the lack of comprehensive bruising and blood makeup on the major characters, Reeves most of all (see also The Batman [2022]), though I appreciate how the film portrays him limping and exhausted during lulls in the combat. Skarsgård’s French accent also needs work, but he’s still an effective villain and I struggle to recall anything else about the film I didn’t like.

The Harbinger (Clancy Brown, center) arranges an official duel between Reeves and main antagonist Bill Skarsgård (second from right) in Paris while Donnie Yen (far right) and Ian McShane (far left) observe.

This third and perhaps final sequel is representative of the entire franchise given how effective it is from beginning to end, with no major weak links nor any misdirected stylistic choices.  I could recommend John Wick 4 to most folks even if they have little interest in hardcore shoot-’em-ups because the movie’s overall cinematographic style and screenplay structure are that strong, regardless of the gargantuan runtime. From its overall look to its varied soundtrack to its juicy characterizations to its impressive narrative structure, Stahelski, Reeves, Laustsen, and company make action filmmaking look easy even before the first punch is thrown or the first bullet shot.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The credits of most blockbusters have that “wall of names” of dozens to hundreds of special FX artists, or the “virtual sweatshops” of modern filmmaking as Mike Stoklasa once called them. John Wick 4’s wall of names, instead, is full of stunt guys, and it shows. Action filmmaking is stellar from the multipart ensemble cast onslaught in Osaka to the grungy Berlin club brawl to the furious race across Paris, all of which culminate in a powerful conclusion for its eponymous protagonist.

However… the lack of injury makeup is as distracting as Bill Skarsgård’s artificial French accent.

—> John Wick 4 comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for action enthusiasts and franchise newcomers alike.

? It’s a wonder how much more tense these fights feel when so many combatants use body armor and Reeves can’t headshot them all.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

Am I spot on? Am I full of it? Let me know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: