The world of John Wick is a curious place indeed. It’s a world that looks very much like ours – it has all the same landmarks, but it’s a world without police, a world in which a network of underground assassins, bound by a medieval code of conduct, conduct meetings in public places, complete with ornate imported furniture, and the public leave them to it. It’s a world where a secret organisation, religious in character, has an open mausoleum for its honoured dead on the outskirts of Manhattan, which no one else is curious about. It’s a place where Keanu Reeves’ monosyllabic murderer can kill hundreds of people in plain sight, and bystanders barely notice. It’s a world of heightened colour and stylised lighting effects, that renders locations as comic book panels.
It’s a closed world then – reality adjacent, but then no real world concerns must get in the way of Wick’s dignified, almost reticent quest to rid the world of the High Table’s unprincipled, dishonourable Marquis and his nigh on inexhaustible supply of well-trained (but not quite well-trained enough) henchmen, who alongside hired guns and blackmailed blades, follow Wick around the bloodstained world, until finally, all agree to congregate in Paris for the symbolic decider – a duel (yes, duel, complete with pistols and thirty paces) between cinema’s most infamous dog lover and the man who would be king of the underworld.
You don’t need me to tell you how it ends, only that by the time it does we’ve spent so long with John, watching him execute his foes with well-choreographed precision – the balletic dance of death, we’re as exhausted and beat up as he is.
John Wick: Chapter 4 (no subtitle this time) is a fucking long movie then, and at times director Chad Stahelski tests our patience – the sands in the hour glass running dry, with portentous and pretentious dialogue scene after dialogue scene, calibrated to be as self-indulgently long and whimsical as possible. You haven’t heard so many characters talk in platitudes since the Matrix sequels (what is it with movies featuring Keanu and Laurence Fishburne?). The action set-pieces aren’t any more economical – they last a lifetime, but there is something about their grace and grandiosity that carries you along. Ultimately, the sensory overload is trance inducing – you surrender to the movie, content it’s been done to you and that your careful scrutiny and intellectual contribution is not required.
Could Stahelski cut to the quick and given us a less ponderous, more concise depiction of Wick’s seemingly eternal struggle? Undoubtedly. But if you’re a fan of this series its because you’ve bought into the codified combat of the near-mute assassin’s dayglow world. Tarantino did it with more moxie in Kill Bill – a dollop of full-fat cinematic ice cream where our hero had a lot more to say than “yeah”, and Clancy Brown’s on hand this time to remind us that Highlander did it with greater humour and economy. But there’s something about the relentlessness of Wick’s ordeal that stands above the generic action pictures that clog up the contemporary market place. These movies are superficial but they have a personality and an intensity that lingers in the memory.
Chapter 4 feels like the end for Wick and whatever the box office, it should be. The filmmakers have fulfilled their obligation to the audience and are free. There’s no reason to return to the well for another game-like exercise in mass murder, unless it’s to discover what happened to all those missing police. I mean, really – France does have a police force, right?