John Wick: Chapter 4 Is the Bloody Finale We’ve Been Waiting For
In John Wick: Chapter 4, Keanu Reeves’s puppy-avenging assassin returns for one last fever dream of violence and mayhem, giving viewers a final chance to watch John Wick seek the kind of revenge on the wealthy and all-powerful that we all dream about.
As you might have heard, in this final installment of the franchise, the John Wick 4 creative team really and truly goes for it. And they go for it to such an extent that you’re brought right back to the dire act that ignited the whole vengeful spree — the killing of Wick’s puppy all those years ago. It’s no longer a spoiler to say what’s being widely reported, though you might still consider this a SPOILER, that the shocking murder that occurs early in John Wick 4, the one that’s guaranteed make you gasp with a similar sense of outrage, is the sudden, brutal killing of Charon, the character played by the late, lamented actor Lance Reddick.
Which makes it the perfect setup for the final cathartic paroxysm of violence to come.
Audiences are flocking to see it, of course, as this appears to be the last of John Wick, at least as embodied by beloved actor Keanu Reeves. For years now John Wick’s been there to supply us, at reliable intervals, with those experiences we’re denied in our lives — respect, rough justice, a heightened and meaningful way to conduct ourselves in a bloody, ghastly world, and most of all, exquisitely violent revenge on all the nightmarish power players who won’t just let us live quietly with our dog.
The logic of John Wick’s world is one that we recognize, in that “they” — the wealthy, all-powerful yet unknown people who rule our lives — are always in the act of taking away from us what little we have left. If the dog is all that’s remaining of a once-vibrant and complete household, they kill the dog. If we have only a few friends, they eradicate them. If we’ve found a safe place to stay somewhere in the world, they blow it up. That’s the way of things in John Wick films, and we recognize it as a highly dramatized version of the brutal Big Squeeze we’re feeling in our own lives. We’re not quite picked clean yet, but anything of value we still have, they’re coming for it. Stable jobs? Pensions? Health care? Social Security? Decent affordable housing? Any thriving community? Even if you’ve got any of those things, by some amazing good fortune, do you think they will let you keep any of it? For how long?
The fearless inventiveness of John Wick 4 can’t be praised enough. It plays out like a fever dream. Even the colors are feverish. Early scenes set in the InterContinental Hotel Osaka, one of the several Continental Hotels internationally where assassins gather to relax, regroup, and prepare for their next bloody endeavor, feature colors so intense and expressionistic that faces become lurid masks in acid green or hellfire red. These extremes are necessary to dramatize the peril and the rage overtaking the remaining friends and allies of John Wick, as an all-out attempt to destroy Wick has already led to the destruction of the New York Continental, sending Winston (Ian McShane) and his concierge, Charon (Reddick) to the High Table’s new enforcer, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), for clarification about this mad new vendetta — with fatal consequences.
The Marquis is a pampered, baby-faced, satin-wearing French aristo of maximum detestability, whose mission is to destroy any remaining solidarity around John Wick by annihilating every single place where Wick is still welcome — and everyone who considers him a friend. To lead this effort, he’s blackmailed an old crony of Wick’s, the blind High Table assassin Caine, played by martial arts legend Donnie Yen, by threatening Caine’s daughter’s life. Yen, star of the super-successful Ip Man series, is sixty now, and his slight frame and unglamorous, weak-chinned face conveys the wrong impression of ordinary-guy vulnerability until the fighting starts and his quicksilver mastery makes him awesome. Yen’s a director in his own right, as well as a beloved actor, and he had a lot of say in the construction of his character. He gives a performance of such wry humor, he’s lovable even while trying to kill John Wick.
Fights under duress between friends who don’t actually want to hurt each other, get progressively more agonizing throughout the film, as the audience doesn’t want to see either combatant die. At the Osaka Continental, Wick’s loyal friend Shimazu Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada), who runs the place, gives him temporary shelter and is in maximum peril as a result, along with his daughter Akira (Rina Sawayama), who serves as his badass concierge. The inevitable sword fight between Koji and Caine, both actually fighting to defend their daughters, is full of the poignant resolve of old samurai films.
Eventually this friends-fight-friends agon culminates in an elaborately formal Old World pistol duel between John Wick and Caine, in which they’re to fire at each other at thirty paces apart. Then if neither dies, advance ten paces and fire again, until they’re at point-blank range. It was Wick’s plan that he and the Marquis would fight the duel as a way of settling the whole matter without any further violence forced on friends and bystanders. But “the rules,” which the High Table bureaucracy slavishly obeys, allow for the duelist’s second to fight in his stead, so Caine is charged with killing Wick the old-fashioned way.
If it had been swords, Caine the blind swordsman might have prevailed, but pistols make his own chance of dying uncomfortably high. The absurdity of it, and the tension, is so great, Caine tries to break it beforehand with an excess of smiling casualness, saying, “Let’s just get this shit over with.” But neither, it seems, can bear to kill the other, so the flesh wounds accumulate as they get closer and closer.
I won’t give away how they get out of it, but it’s a doozy of a solution, believe me. It was so exciting and inventive, a guy in the theater shouted, “Woo-HOO!” when it happened, then added sheepishly, “Sorry,” for his involuntary outburst.
Of course, if all the action scenes were this intensely meaningful, it wouldn’t be a John Wick film, so there are several memorable scenes involving mass attacks on Wick by ordinary goon entourages or opportunistic jackasses trying to collect the ever-more-enormous bounty on Wick’s head. John Wick having to kill scores of would-be assassins is the hallmark of the series, and there’s still humor operating in a number of these scenes, as always. Near the end, when John Wick has survived the Arc de Triomphe onslaught and made it, bruised and battered, to the steps — two-hundred-and-twenty-two of them — up to the Sacre-Coeur Basilica where the duel will take place, he’s got about five minutes to trot up there in order to be on time. If he’s not on time, that means he’s instantly condemned to be executed, and he’ll be on the run forevermore.
Still, he hesitates a moment, like a regular human being, dreading the climb when he’s so tired already. Then out of the shadows emerge at least a dozen more assailants, standing in threatening postures at regular intervals all the way up the steps. And just walking up, without having to fight more of these idiots, was going to be bad enough.
That’s pretty funny in the world-weary way John Wick 4 functions. So is the part where he’s almost at the top with maybe two minutes to spare and then gets knocked back down a hundred steps. The nearly impossible is always made totally impossible in John Wick movies, and somehow he still has to pull it off. Which suggests, in itself, a necessary end to the series, which has maintained a surprisingly high level of quality across four films — John Wick has to stay mortal, and that means exhaustion has to set in. Supposedly it was Keanu Reeves who initially said what others hardly dared think, which was — SPOILER — “We’ve got to kill John Wick.”
This was a very death-oriented film even before the shocking real-life passing of Reddick, the beloved actor who played Charon. Death broods over many scenes, such as the one in which John Wick and Caine have a détente meeting set in a church lit by a hundred candles, a scene clearly inspired by John Woo’s Hong Kong films with their rueful, melancholy men in loving communion before killing each other. Woo was the great director of operatic action films, full of tragic melodrama and death and expressionistic color schemes.
Wick lights a candle for his late wife and says a few words to her as Caine watches him from a front pew.
CAINE: “Do you really think she can hear you?”
JOHN WICK: “No.”
CAINE: “Then why bother?”
JOHN WICK: “Maybe I’m wrong.”
In another scene, John Wick tells Winston what he wants written on his tombstone: “Loving Husband.”
Though the director, Chad Stahelski, has left a little bit of ambiguity, just enough to resurrect John Wick for a fifth film, it appears as if Wick himself has reached the end of the line. That his crusade to wipe out the High Table members one by one should have expired with such a whimper, with even his friends telling him there’ll always be another weasel-faced rich criminal bastard to take the dead one’s place, seems quietly topical.
John Wick is a man in retreat by the end, blamed even by his friends for daring to take on the all-powerful High Table, which only got more people killed. “Have you learned nothing?” Winston demands to know, and it appears that all Wick has learned is summed up in his final request to Winston: “Would you take me home?”
This from an assassin who has no home in the ordinary sense, hasn’t had one since the puppy his wife arranged to be brought to him after her death got killed by a gangster’s creepy son in the first John Wick. The closest thing he has to home is, apparently, the grave next to his wife’s.
So it’s a despairing ending to an exhilarating ride, but that’s okay. It has, shall we say, a certain credibility.