Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The “John Wick” franchise has become nearly iconic, revered for its unrelenting, ever-escalating action sequences and rich urban mythology. The 2014 original was a cautionary tale: Russian gangsters beat up a man, stole his car and killed his beagle, later to discover that their sad sack target was widowed John Wick (Keanu Reeves), the criminal underworld’s retired boogeyman, who straps on, arms up and gets his vengeance.

In “Chapter 2” (2017) Wick tries to return to retirement, but after an Italian crime boss betrays him after cashing in a blood oath, Wick for his payback ignores “neutral ground” (the Continental Hotel) and gets a bounty put on his head. “Chapter 3 – Parabellum” (2019) finds Wick on the run with an unlikely ally in the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who has his own beef with the underworld’s High Table. It is here that “Chapter 4” (more of a “Chapter 3: Part 2”) kicks off.

Fearful of revolt, the High Table bestows unlimited power to the ambitious Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgard) to take out Wick and others who threaten its power, which leads the Marquis to order Wick’s old friend, the blind assassin Caine (Boston’s own Donnie Yen) to kill Wick in exchange for his daughter’s life. Yen, whose attire is reminiscent of  Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith from “The Matrix” (1999), has rapid, smooth moves that elevate the action sequences. But the real draw of “Wick 4” is the foppishly elegant Marquis, a bigger-than-life persona with lethal can-do. Combining business with pleasure, in one scene the Marquis issues orders while picking at a lavish pastry buffet in a cavernous, baroquely decorated room; he later negotiates with associates in a stately stable surrounded by fencing equestrians who resemble Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” backup dancers/performers.

Chad Stahelski, who directed the prior installments, returns, as does “Chapter 3” writer Shay Hatten. He’s teamed with franchise newcomer Michael Finch, whose best work is “Predators” (2010) and “American Assassin” (2017), which may explain why the narrative of “Chapter 4” makes the titular character feel like something of a supporting character. As the film develops, Wick becomes a Rorschach test for the ensemble of good and bad: a quick payday to bounty hunters such as dog lover Tracker (Shamier Anderson) or a beloved friend to Shimazu Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Osaka Continental manager. This focal shift may be a gambit to prepare audiences for possible spinoffs without Reeves.

The action is fluid and all-consuming and makes it easy to overlook some of the story’s shortcomings (too many new threads, not so seamlessly woven in). Stahelski has described his vision as an homage to David Lean, with an opening sequence that feels like a Western meeting “Laurence of Arabia” (1962). The Osaka sequence looks to Japanese action staples: yakuza, samurai, ninja shuriken (throwing stars), nunchucks and sumo wrestlers; in an inspired scene, the screen is bathed in cherry blossom red to foreshadow the bloodshed to come. 

The luminous cinematography, again by Dan Laustsen, invokes awe. And for action junkies, Wick’s journey from Berlin to Paris has him dodging moving vehicles and a limitless battery of henchmen under the Arc de Triomphe. Stahelski shoots the fight sequence from atop as if god was looking down through the roof.