I don’t know many Chinese sayings (there are a lot), but this one is a favourite of my parents and has always stuck with me. Translated it says, “Climbing up a mountain is easy, coming down is hard.” There are multiple ways to interpret and apply this – such is the brilliance of the phrase – but I’ve always considered it in the context of the ego hit and emotional devastation caused by a downfall that makes all the hard work to get to the top seem like child’s play in comparison.
While there’s a moment in John Wick: Chapter 4 that is a vivid depiction of this expression, I never thought about how this phrase relates to our favourite neighbourhood assassin throughout the franchise. Across four films, we never see the work John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has put into getting to the top of his field; we just know it to be true based mostly on others' reactions to him and also via his undeniable skill set. What we do see, though, is his arduous and achingly painful, self-imposed come-down for some semblance of a peaceful life.
As we enter the fourth chapter in John’s story, there’s a feeling of finality that we’re going to see if and how Baba Yaga pries himself out from beneath the High Table. That finality begins with the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) bringing John his suit and asking him if he’s ready – ready to wage battle and exact revenge on the people and system that created him. After he commits an irreversible act that brings the world’s assassins to his doorstep (again), it becomes apparent that John’s path to freedom can only be through challenging the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) to a duel, as per the old rules.
Predictably Chapter 4 culminates in this brilliant showdown with Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind assassin, reluctantly acting in the Marquis’ place, atop the beautiful Sacré-Cœur no less. But, of course, the journey to the iconic Paris landmark is laden with an ever-increasing bounty on John’s head and the best hired killers in the business.
Where the original John Wick was brilliant in its simplicity and realistic action, John Wick: Chapter 2 expertly expanded the world where assassins roam freely. These first two films were (and continue to be) my favourites of the franchise for their myth building and their audacity in showing actors actually performing fight choreography with skill. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, though, lost me a bit. The film felt like all flourish and little substance – the exact action film trope Reeves and director Chad Stahelski were adamant about avoiding. In Chapter 4, the duo find as close to an equilibrium between the good and the bad of the franchise as is seemingly possible.
For as much love as I have for the myth of John Wick and the reality built around him, the storyline was admittedly running in circles. Chapter 4 does put a thrilling full-stop on the quest John has been on since some Russian punk killed his puppy, albeit the narrative does feel thin at times and without the beating heart of the first two chapters. However, where a tender soul may be difficult to find in the plot, Stahelski discovers it in his direction.
I’ve watched countless interviews of Stahelski over the years where he talks about narrative, action, stunts, etc. His admiration and respect for the industry is obvious. As a former stuntman and coordinator, he is acutely aware of the genre’s shortcomings and potential, and has worked towards realizing and pushing the latter. His directing credits have solely been within the John Wick franchise so far, and as such, we’ve all had a front row seat to his development and evolution as a filmmaker. And goodness is Chapter 4 the graduation ceremony of a lifetime.
It goes without saying that the action in a John Wick film is going to be kinetic, electrifying, breathtaking – all of the adjectives. The ‘gun-fu’ is sleek and sophisticated, with attention paid to the finest details like reloads and checking the chamber for bullets, and the ground combat is raw and brutal. As in the previous films, Chapter 4 expands its action beyond these two action modes and we’re treated to archery, nunchucks, and sword fighting.
The big sequence in Japan with the irreverent Hiroyuki Sanada as the manager of the Osaka Continental Hotel is a personal favourite. The way Stahelski preserves the majesty and esteem of the katana while incorporating modern fighting techniques and visuals is absorbing and a great example of how the director understands and appreciates history and not just fanfare.
Where Stahelski surprises and impresses the most as a director, though, is in his boldness. A simple scene wherein Winston (Ian McShane) walks towards the Marquis becomes an imposing image with the massive paintings of the Louvre haunting the frame. There’s also the incredible overhead shot that will be discussed, replayed, and retweeted for years. As John snakes through rooms with the greatest precision, we take the perspective of someone watching a mouse find its way through a maze – it’s simple, yet astounding.
While it may sound like I’m accepting a flimsy storyline in favour of pomp and circumstance, just as Stahelski found narrative in his action, he finds it again in these optical embellishments. For instance, Chapter 4 includes a multitude of shots that pronounce the vibrancy of its locations, whether it’s the neon lights of Osaka or the grandeur of Paris. I’m sure there’s a degree of pure showmanship, but given the geographical expanse of the film, those touches do an excellent job of acting like a compass for audiences.
We have been witness to John’s entire laborious climb down the mountain, and caught in the weeds of the gun fights and dramatic exchanges is the heartbreaking story of a man who has been paying for the sins of his livelihood. The film doesn’t capitalize on this with dialogue (it’s a John Wick movie after all), but with each minute filmmaking decision. What results is a film that celebrates its own history and lore as it pushes the boundaries of what is possible in the future. And with Chapter 4, by thine own hand, Stahelski and Reeves have cemented John Wick as one of the greatest action franchises in cinematic history.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is in theatres now.