movie review

The Limits and Wonders of John Wick’s Last Fight

In John Wick: Chapter 4, bodies are cut, shot, broken, and strangely beautiful when meeting their ends. If only every end were earned. Photo: Murray Close/Lionsgate

John Wick: Chapter 4, like entries in the franchise before it, treats the body with the elasticity and deranged joy of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Consider Homeless Hare, a 1950 Chuck Jones short in which Bugs Bunny resorts to gleeful violence against a construction worker, Hercules, who uproots the trickster’s home. Bugs begins by dropping a brick from the height of the building on the head of his foe. Attached is a single slip of paper warning Hercules that Bugs is coming for that ass. What follows in this delightful short is defined by wild, violent revenge. So is the John Wick franchise’s approach, and it reflects a similarly potent understanding of the body’s seductive vulnerabilities.

In Chapter 4, Keanu Reeves endures so many violent falls that would kill anyone else, but he always gets up and continues to fight another day — the humor of this inevitability hitting at the same moment as the fear of what could actually end him. This action is crucial to character building and styled specifically for each — though almost everyone in the world is balletic, smooth, and endlessly cool in the face of guns, knives, swords, and all other weaponry on the table. Even the lighting understands this specific fiction, punctuating darkness with cartoonish pops of neon. This approach to action has been broadly adopted in Hollywood, but those that seek to replicate its charms often fail with a lack of clarity, a use of darkness through which the audience can’t see a damn thing. They forget how badly we want to watch — and really see — a star with the heft of Reeves commit these acts of glorious violence.

Chapter 4 is blissfully entertaining, full of pratfalls and acting turns that lead to the audience swelling with oohs, aahs, and yelps. It’s far more narratively focused than its previous sequels, still managing to globe-trot a behemoth cast à la Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 while returning to a simpler conflict reminiscent of the original John Wick. Here, John Wick seeks to finally buy his freedom by dueling the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård), a crime-world fixture of inherited power who has been emboldened to bend and break the rules by the High Table in an effort to maintain its supremacy in the face of Wick’s flagrant disruption. Why make the Marquis the target of Wick’s vengeance and freedom instead of letting him take that heat directly to the High Table? The franchise needs to keep the status quo intact for the plentiful spinoffs that filmmakers have in mind — including Ballerina, starring Ana de Armas. I have some reservations about these narrative choices, but the cinematic violence of Chapter 4 brought me the joy and erotic rush that has long powered the series. It synthesizes the zaniness of Looney Tunes and gags of Buster Keaton with martial-arts master classes that call back to the career of Jackie Chan and learn from more recent films like 2017’s South Korean action flick The Villainess. It’s a history lesson on what the body can do onscreen — its limits and its wonders.

Director Chad Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen create arguably the best-looking of the John Wick films. The quiet moments are evocative — like when Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King blows out a match before the camera cuts to a cresting sunset (a cheeky homage to Lawrence of Arabia and one of the most famous cuts in film history) — and the unleashing of violence is clear and easy to follow. There’s no confusion when it comes to how and where characters are inhabiting space. The stellar production design deserves credit as well, particularly in the way the Osaka Continental (run by Hiroyuki Sanada’s Shimazu Koji and his concierge and daughter, Akira, played by Rina Sawayama) is dressed and designed. Its clean lines, glossy surfaces, glass-encased weapons and artifacts, and all-around cool tones diligently build out this world defined by the intertwining of beauty and blood. I was struck by the use of so many shades of red against this backdrop — magenta, crimson, cherry. One of the most tantalizing shots positions Reeves in the left corner, the field of vision otherwise dominated by cherry blossoms in full bloom and a circular building sliced with lights of arterial red. Stahelski and Laustsen make profound use of horizontal space even when one of its best blunders, played out by Reeves on the 222 steps of Paris’s Sacré Coeur basilica, is obviously vertically defined.

And it’s not just Reeves but the many actors in his orbit who shine with a blend of vengeful grace and humorous beats. Bodies everywhere are cut, shot through, flipped, broken, and strangely beautiful when meeting their ends. Although not every end feels quite earned. The late Lance Reddick becomes a sacrificial lamb early on in this chapter, and his story line is shuffled away too quickly. Fishburne’s Shakespearean Bowery King and Clancy Brown’s Harbinger are not used to the full degree that they should be either, but anytime their booming voices are used, the film shines brighter. Until Scott Adkins walks in wearing a grotesque fat suit as Killa. Hollywood’s doubling down on anti-fatness with Colin Farrell’s turn in The Batman and Brendan Fraser’s Oscar-winning performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale will not age well, and it’s frustrating that John Wick’s final installment has something as loathsome as this. But Chapter 4 offers greater turns by beloved actors and martial artists new and seasoned alike. Donnie Yen plays Caine, a close friend of Wick’s who is pulled back into the life of an assassin to kill his comrade. He has already given up his eyesight in order to protect his daughter and get out, but here, he is forced to endure. He’s delightfully cheeky in his fight scenes, moving with quick-witted, silken force, making Wick’s brutality all the more blatant.

Yen is the film’s MVP — whether he’s slurping down food and ignoring the violence blooming around him or shit-talking the Marquis to his face. Then there’s Sanada’s beautifully rendered Shimazu, dear and determined, who puts his life on the line out of love for Wick and a belief in honor. The friendship between these three men is crucial to the emotional world of the film and gives it layers I wasn’t expecting but wanted more of. When Wick speaks Japanese to Shimazu or shares a long gaze with Caine, these relationships are given an intimacy that relies on Reeves’s own three-decade-long history as a star undergirded by considerations of race, identity, and history. But I was especially surprised by just how damn good pop star Sawayama is in her role. She’s giving looks, poses, the right angles, charisma, grit. She’s so eye-catching that I got lost in the beauty of her performance whenever she was onscreen.

So what about Skarsgård? In many ways, the Marquis and Wick are a study in opposites. Where Wick is stoic and terse, the Marquis is the kind of man who says lines like “Second chances are the refuge of men who fail.” He likes his espresso sweet, his waistcoats fabulous, and his violence flowing endlessly. While Wick earned his reputation, the Marquis was bequeathed his. Wick believes in formality, and the Marquis flouts the rules. Costuming is a strength of the series, which is apparent in this chapter’s fine suits, particularly the Marquis’s — of crimson, of navy, of twilight. Skarsgård leans into the camp and archness roiling under the surface of this franchise. His accent is mellifluous. It dips, flutters, and stretches in ways that feel both studied and hilarious. His face scrunches and has a flexibility that borders on comical while never losing sight of the necessary tone.

Yet by the end, I held a nagging belief that Stahelski and the Chapter 4 script didn’t quite capitalize on all of Reeves’s strengths. This Wick is exceedingly, almost frustratingly, terse and stoic, muttering one-liners and yeahs that could easily trip into the parodic. Reeves is good and game. But the story doesn’t capitulate with earnestness or heartfelt dialogue, choosing to highlight his physical grace and determination above all else. Reeves has always been a performer defined not just by the delicate beauty of his body but an emotional clarity and sweetness that is almost nowhere to be found in this film. Moments with Yen, including a candlelit church scene, are where Chapter 4 comes closest to Reeves’s complexity as an actor who lies at the nexus of virility and vulnerability. Wick’s interactions with a tracker who likes to call himself Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson) allows Reeves to, at least, add notes of befuddlement and curiosity. Mr. Nobody is an obsessive fan of Wick’s — following him and drawing him in a firmly kept notebook while hunting him as the price over Wick’s head accelerates. Mr. Nobody even has a beloved dog he uses in his action sequences. It’s a meta nod to the obsession around Reeves himself and those who seek to duplicate his elegance while not understanding its roots.

What ends up most intriguing about his performance is the subtext of the movie’s denouement: the idea that Reeves is, for however long, ceding the John Wick spotlight — unlike his aging-star cohort (think Brad Pitt in Bullet Train and Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick), who welcome neophytes into their fold but insist on outlasting them. Reeves is a star who doesn’t suck up all of the oxygen. He’s able to mold himself to the work and pull back when necessary — but maybe too far back this time, as his performance tips into laconic and guarded by the close. (Reeves missed his calling as a silent-film actor, but his best characters aren’t muted.) The Chapter 4 ending, an echo of a crucial one in the beloved ’90s anime Cowboy Bebop, feels like it’s fighting the gravitational force of Reeves rather than submitting to it. Shouldn’t Wick be coming at the High Table, not a proxy? Shouldn’t Wick’s last fight reflect the grandness and dynamism of its focal point? Chapter 4 is a deliriously entertaining entry into the franchise, but its final moments can’t help but put into harsh relief the fact that this ridiculous world of glory and gut punches is evolving to exist without its namesake, yet it still needs him to feel alive.

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The Limits and Wonders of John Wick’s Last Fight