By Sebastian Cruz
I understand the importance of a series such as John Wick a lot more intimately than some may think, insofar as it is the natural conclusion to a cultural zeitgeist of pure motherfucking action™ that has hardly seen this much ubiquity since any decade of your choosing. The institutional behemoth of Marvel Studios spits them out one, two, five at a time each and every year and we love them (or hate them (or love them again. I’m excited for Guardians, Vol. 3, I can’t fib.)) Such a mass regularity of the character-driven, continuity-based action flicks arrives at a sort of singularity. There are certainly characters in John Wick. Hell, they even have motivations and established relationships with each other. And that’s all well and good. But any scene that does not feature a sweaty, battle born Keanu Reeves shit-kick-flipping every featureless baddie into the surrounding buttresses is not worth either my time nor the American peoples’. Bully for us, then, since that’s what 70-80% of the movies consist of. At least, I assume.
Full disclosure: I have not seen a lick of any other John Wick installment. I’m more or less forfeiting my amateur journalistic license here; yet, consider the circumstances: the final, and thus most climactic, portion of a series built out of increasingly creative gunplay and/or fisticuffs. The plot is a delicate mish-mash of already established events that are most often alluded to and, on occasion, outright stated. Yet the actual movie-specific plot is so simple that it makes no difference. John Wick is such a fucking badass that everyone in the world wants him dead. He’s taken out entire city-states’ worth of gunmen, blademen, bluntinstrumentmen. And his original motivation for all of this is so obfuscated that even the villains outright ask about the inanity of his deathwish. He quite literally has nothing to gain. Wife dead, wife’s dog dead, disavowed, destitute, can’t emote to save his life.
Now, let’s not kid ourselves. Keanu Reeves is a heavy load to bear when you’re including him on the ticket. He’s a beautiful little paradox, and this film is perhaps his lifetime achievement. Every line delivery he can muster is wrapped in a stoic monotone not unheard of for these sorts of balls-to-the-wall action flicks (see Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, Daniel Craig, and for the subversive amongst you, Steven Seagal.) However, Reeves falls into the uncanny valley of emotionality where nothing he says makes him sound either tough or sympathetic. I think he legitimately sounds confused, as though after all these damn years of this cat and mouse horseshit is still lost on him.
And what makes it all the better is that just about everyone else is really selling it! The less-often-mentioned Skårsgard brother resurrects the evil Frenchman type into a succinct and dastardly string-puller. Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne are grandiose enough for three; however, the newest arrivals are perhaps the most well-rounded of the ticket. Donnie Yen was so convincing as an old friend of Wick’s that it didn’t dawn on me that he’s just not introduced at all in the previous three installments, and Shanier Anderson’s “Mr. Nobody” is a perfect foil for Wick—still possessing that grizzled mystery ever-present in this tragic backstory-filled gunmen without the tragic backstory. He even still has his dog which, metatextually at least, is just insensitive. Cursory Rina Sawayama comment. Where’s LP3?
I know nobody really gives a shit but I need to make a detour to focus on the look of the film, because you know what, filmmaking is all-encompassing and I’ll be damned if I don’t admit that this movie is kind of beautiful. Even in the boring-if-necessary half-act at the beginning, the clean, almost clinical scene blocking and location mixes with the orange overtones in a deeply satisfying way. So too is the Osaka Continental cloaked in enveloping purples and blues, the streets of Paris shadowy and aplomb with environmental hazards. There’s probably something about the camerawork that’s subtly intricate and well-planned but as long as I can see whose foot is going up whoever’s ass then I think the general public (and I) are solid gold.
Now, I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m kinda sorta stalling when it comes to talking about the actual meat of this action-packed action movie for the action-inclined. It’s very clear that in this movie, and so by extension the previous three, that the frilly extras of plot, dialogue, emotional performances and the like are less than secondary draws. Unique selling points (USPs) are ever-the-more singular. Oftentimes, they’re stratified as “gimmicks”, as flashy, style-over-anything shlock that fills seats.
Yet at the same time, isn’t it a little silly to expect anything metaphorically, philosophically, spiritually more from a near-3 hour movie that seeks to entertain and little else? The notion that every aspect of a film needs to be scrutinized completely ignores the intent in which it was created. And we are hardly short of other films that primarily seek to stimulate one’s “higher brain” (whatever that means this time).
One could propose that John Wick: Chapter 4 and the series as a whole tries to cut it both ways, just by the pure reason that there followed three more movies from the original. John Wick IS that guy, so they purport. Underneath it all, he’s a guy who misses his family. There’s a lot of context you miss when tilting your head at one part of a four-part story, but even that simple idea shines through by the end. That sort of plain if poignant driving force is enough of a tangible thread to connect it to the previously depicted violence and the implied mass violence from before.
It all ultimately depends on what one wants to gain from such a movie franchise like John Wick. The merits of it, for me, comes down to how many ways this orphaned Russian expatriate can kick an inordinate amount of ass. At this juncture, my scope limits me, but if I had fun with what they wanted to present to me—the lights, the colors, the muzzle flashes and bone crackles—then isn’t that already a job well done?