In the latest and longest movie set in Wick World, Keanu Reeves’s titular assassin visits Paris and paints the town red.
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By Manohla Dargis
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A vulgar pleasure of the “John Wick” series is that it aestheticizes violence without the usual blah-blah rationales and appeals to conscience. At once basic and off-the-charts nuts, each movie — the fourth opens this week — centers on a laconic assassin with a hazy back story and extraordinary skills. A virtuoso of death, Wick (Keanu Reeves) has his reasons, or so the series insists, but he kills because it is what he does. It’s his thing. “Deserves got nothing to do with it,” as Clint Eastwood says in “Unforgiven.”
Eastwood is in the DNA of the “Wick” series — and in the way Reeves deliberately draws out the word yeah — and so too are Jean-Pierre Melville, Jackie Chan, Buster Keaton, John Woo, Fred Astaire, “Point Blank,” the Three Stooges and “Get Carter.” That said, the overall story is stripped down to the point of minimalism, especially when compared to the average superhero bloat-a-thon. In the first Wick movie, the assassin resumes his bloody ways after gangsters kill his puppy — a gift from his dead wife — and steal his car. Before long, he has antagonized his former employers, a villainous syndicate called the High Table.
Despite its seemingly Hobbesian aspect, Wick World does have rules, and by the second movie, the character is declared “excommunicado,” a word that underscores the High Table’s profile as a shadowy, quasi-religious elite manifestation of absolute power. The conceit of an all-knowing, all-seeing group of underworld puppet-masters is primo movieland conspiracy-theory and very of the moment; it’s silly, nebulously political, and it gives viewers wide latitude to interpret the movie however they prefer — or they can just groove on the plush trappings, exotic locations, exploding heads and bodies in glorious motion.
Inside the World of ‘John Wick’
The fourth installment of the action franchise starring Keanu Reeves as a reluctant assassin premieres March 24.
The series’ director, Chad Stahelski, is a stunt veteran (he’s doubled for Reeves), so he understandably likes to show off bodies as they move — pivot, soar and fall — in space. He uses plenty of close-ups and medium shots, but he also likes to pull back for full-figure framing à la Astaire. This allows you to see and luxuriate in the performers’ physicality, in their grace and steely power, as well as to appreciate the geometry and precision of the fight choreography. This focus underscores the frailty and impermanence of these bodies, their humanness, especially Wick’s as this seemingly invincible man is repeatedly brutalized.
Written by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch, “John Wick: Chapter 4” pretty much plays out like the previous movies, though at a generally fast-moving 169 minutes it’s longer. Even so, it rarely drags because there’s relatively little dialogue and down time. For the most part, Wick chases or is chased by other assassins, shooting and stabbing, grappling and grunting in a series of visually distinct, meticulously staged and filmed set pieces. Every so often, he confers with old comrades, notably the sonorous, bassy trio of Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne and Lance Reddick, who add luster and history to the series with their singular faces, hard-boiled résumés and perfectly tuned arch deliveries.
There are new faces, among them cautious friendlies (Hiroyuki Sanada, Rina Sawayama), sympathetic combatants (Donnie Yen, Shamier Anderson) and another filthy-rich villain (Bill Skarsgard), a Euro-trashy baddie with bespoke glittery suits and a taste for torture and classical music. The series has expanded its New York-centric geographical coordinates, and while it jumps to the Middle East, Japan and Europe, it continues to stick close to its circumscribed template. So, the High Table’s tattooed minions in pencil skirts are back. There’s yet another dog and another elaborate sequence at a crowded dance club (the streets are empty by comparison) but, crucially, still no sign of the modern surveillance state.
The constraints of Wick World put it safely on the side of full-blown fantasy, giving the series the feel of a grim fairy tale. It might seem like a distorted mirror of our world, but what’s notable are all the ways it’s different from ours — not just in its depiction of power but also of violence, which, for all the arterial spray, is as untethered from reality as it is in zombie flicks. When Wick faces off against challengers at the Arc de Triomphe in “Chapter 4,” there are no gendarmes, no blaring sirens or screaming bystanders to interrupt the kinetic flow. There is simply and once again Reeves, the axis who centers this franchise with his grave sincerity, beatific glow and mesmerizing, rooted fighting style, with its heavy-footed solidity and surprising suppleness. No matter what happens, nothing ever feels as poignantly at stake here as Reeves’s own ravaged, beautiful, aging body.
There are offscreen stakes, of course, starting at the box office, but central to this series’ appeal is how it reminds you of the real world — through the years between sequels and Reeves’s gray hairs — even as it remains insistently apart from reality’s messiness, its confusions, existential terrors, corporate overlords and unspeakable ordinary brutality. Life for many in Wick World is, to borrow Hobbes’s formulation, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” but it’s also sentimental and filled with friendships or at least alliances. It’s also reassuringly ordered, never more so than in its violence, which in Wick World is pure, eye-popping, body-shaking, transporting entertainment, something that (to borrow from another philosopher) has a good beat and you can dance to.
John Wick: Chapter 4
Rated R for the usual bang-bang, stab-stab. Running time: 2 hours 49 minutes. In theaters.
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