Stahelski: John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)
Every John Wick film so far has amped up Chad Stahelski’s vision, and Chapter 4 is no exception. It’s the best in the series, and a worthy conclusion if the series doesn’t continue. Stahelski starts by whittling down the vocabulary of the franchise to its atomic primitives – a series of punches so thunderous they sound like a hammer striking, or a gun deploying, or even a bomb detonating, before we pull back from the clenched fist to see that it belongs to Keanu Reeves’ John Wick, who is presented with a freshly pressed suit by Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King a moment later. The dialogue that ensues condenses the series to its very essence – “Are you ready, John?” “Yeah” – and segues into an opening that relishes big screen spectacle, taking us through cavernous sets and enormous spaces that brim with the ceremony and mysticism of classic action films, until it all fuses into a golden sun hanging in the ether, a burst of pure colour that suggests we’re in for a new horizon in the franchise.
For by condensing John Wick to its very essence, Stahelski gives himself a pivot to expand its vision even further, using this opening Big Crunch to effect a stylistic Big Bang that makes it feel the series has been born anew. Once more, we’re in the world of the Table, a shadowy global network whose members are determined by a combination of wealth and family. John is still on the run from this nefarious organisation, whose current Marchese, the face of the various local Continentals, played by Bill Skarsgard, soon realises that it’s not enough to kill John – he must destroy the “idea of John Wick, and everything that idea touches.” Of course, this means Chapter 4 has the opportunity to refocus the idea of John Wick, as both man and franchise anew, which means re-energising the ambit, aspirations and aesthetics of the Table.
Over the last three films, the neofeudal oligarchy of finance elites that comprises the Table has become both more futuristic and atavistic. Chapter 4 continues that process, providing us with a vision of how Game of Thrones might play out if it was inflected through modern global finance, as we move through the eerie rituals and ceremonies of the business elite, the blood feuds and ancient grievances that find a second life through the vagaries of networked capital, as Fritz Lang documented a century ago in his Dr. Mabuse series, a tacit point of reference here. This schism between the ancient and future worlds produces two distinct approaches to space, which together drive the unique vision of Chapter 4. First, we have spaces that are geometrically abstracted into planes of light, evoking the ether in which the Table moves without disclosing their actions to the world at light. These are post-futuristic spaces, so far ahead of the futures of everyday people that only the most wealthy can see or inhabit them.
The second type of space is arguably uncannier, and sees Stahelski remaking classical and neoclassical city vistas along oligarchical and neofeudalist sightlines. Time and again, the Table set up minimal yet regal mise-en-scenes in public spaces, and dispel any notion of the public in the process. Typically, these consist of chairs, tables, bowls and urns, décor that sits halfway between a boardroom and a throne room, transforming the pre-democratic architecture of Europe into the harbinger of a post-democratic future. Contemporary democratic spaces are also reimagined in this way, most spectacularly in a scene that takes place in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, at the southernmost point of Roosevelt Island. This park was originally built to commemorate Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, but here it is reduced to a primeval and medieval austerity, lit by bowls of fire that flicker and mutate against the coils of fog that envelop the distant Manhattan shoreline.
Concomitantly, Chapter 4 digs deeper into the ancient history of the Table in order to conceive of a future for John, who realises that he is destined to deconsecrate any Continental where he takes refuge unless he falls back on the most arcane tradition known to the Table – the duel. John had always assumed this was a myth, but Ian McShane’s Winston assures him that it is real, and that “the old ways are true on the matter,” leading to a formal declaration to the Marchese: “By the old ways and old laws, John Wick challenges you to a duel, to settle things the old-fashioned way, as a gentleman should.” Stahelski’s franchise probably has a smaller working vocabulary than any other contemporary release, and by design, since the limited number of words works to both evoke a future that can’t be articulated and a past so ancient it has reduced any attempt to explain it to mere ceremony. In Chapter 4, the “old ways” are invoked over and over again, even as they pave the way for an inconceivable future.
Along the way, the neofeudalist oligarchy of the Table is embedded even further in the church, until the film exudes a mystic asceticism, its dialogue reduced to gnomic utterances (“Those who cling to death live, those who cling to life die”) as Wick turns into a renegade monk in a new world order, embarking upon a pilgrimage across Paris to Saint-Eustache to light a candle the night before his duel is scheduled for Sacre-Coeur. Before he can even participate in a duel, he has to receive a crest, and so journeys to the Belarus Continental, where he is immersed into the exotic lore of the Coptic and Orthodox churches. He sits trial with a rope around his next, and has a crest burned into his arm, while being followed by an ambivalent assassin who tries to read his next move with recourse to a notebook dotted with arcane scribbles and symbols. Tarot cards are used to decide the exact coordinates of the duel, as the Table’s rituals of deconsecration take on even more mythic and portentous bent.
One of the most unsettling results of these rituals is to evacuate the film of anything resembling a public, and this respect John Wick is quite different to many other action franchises, where the public are either a liability or a witness to violence. Here, the violence lies in the way in which the public is transformed into a resource, a source of flow to be harnessed and choreographed by the Table. Over the three hour run time, we never see a crowd, which is notable for a film set largely in Paris, the birthplace of the early modern crowd. The closest we come to a crowd coincides with those moments when the film’s action reaches peak fluidity, but otherwise the Table move in their own rarefied spaces, a bit like the vampires in Blade. No doubt, the Table meet “in” public, but their meetings seem to be entirely invisible, apart from the brief ripples their ethereal passage produces, most poetically the squall of pigeons that darts and dances when they plan the duel before the Eiffel Tower.
This lack of a public is perhaps clearest during the central scene of the film – a meeting between the Marchese and Winston, in a completely evacuated Louvre, in front of Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, emblem of the French Revolution and the democratic public, the demos, that it spawned. Yet this Louvre is no longer a public space, but a backdrop for the Marchese’s neofeudalist contemplation, which he focuses intently on Delacroix’s painting, before making the decision to engage in the feud to maintain the Table’s oligarchical hold. On the way out from the meeting, Winston gazes, and shifts the viewer’s gaze, to Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, a better vision of the Table’s impending control, and from here the public becomes a primal power that the organisation draws upon without them ever knowing about it, even or especially when they are situated right in the midst of it.
We see this impoverished public tapped and drained in the sublime flow, the wave of wave upon bodies, that contour the film’s major fight scenes. When it comes to action, Chapter 4, like the earlier films in the franchise, follows the logic of a musical, orchestrating enormous music and dance numbers that leave no time for real gore, because there are always more bodies to contend with. Combat, especially hand and gun combat, is fused into a single stream of activity, as punches ring out like gunshots, and vice versa, and John has barely tumbled and clambered over his quarries on the ground before he is forced down again by the next phase of assassins. It’s a state of pure action that requires a flow that transcends any one sense, demanding a sustained synaesthesia embodied by Caine, a fighter played by Donnie Yen, who parlays his blindness into a preternatural proprioception, an awry ballet that enapsulates the offbeat momentum of the film, the way it dissolves and recovers itself over and over again.
This fusion of action, dance and flow come together in an extraordinary scene in which John fights Killa, head of the German Table, played by Scott Adkins. Even when the two men are in Killa’s office, dance beats pulse in from the nightclub surrounding them, so it’s only a matter of time before John bursts out into a corridor of water lined with go-go dancers, and from there plunges through a curtain of liquid into an enormous warehouse that has been made over as a series of enormous tiered waterfalls partitioning multiple dancefloors, in a distant descendant of Busby Berkeley’s swimming sequences. The fight momentarily disrupts the ravers, but they quickly absorb it back into their flow, as Killa catapults John down one of the tiers, for a fight-dance scene that takes place inside the waterfall, where John gets Killa to ground, and punches his head over and over, in the bluntest hand-to-hand combat so far, until his repeated volleys segue into the dance beat, and he’s finally exhausted by kneeling in the thickest flow of water, as the dancers continually configure and reconfigure around him – a public of sorts, but one only capable of witnessing the violence for mere seconds at a time.
This liquid choreography both draws on and elides the public even further in the final act, when the Marchese rallies all his forces to prevent John from arriving at the duel on time. As John sets out to traverse the contested space between Saint-Eustache and Sacre-Coeur, Chahelski visualises the medium inhabited by the Table as an ether that hangs just above and below the demos that it displaces. On the one hand, the Marchese looks down on a scale map of Paris in his office as his minions broadcast a callout to assassins from a booth perched at the top of the Eiffel Tower. On the other hand, Winston helps John to dodge the Marchese’s missives by taking him through an empty subway cluttered with objects d’art to a private barge that sails him down the Parisian sewers, now transfigured into stately canals. All the arcane energy of the Table, and its absorption of the primal power of the crowd, thus coalesces around the prospect of the duel, resulting in the film’s final dissolution of a public.
It emerges in the form of a chase sequence that converges on the Arc de Triomphe and Place Charles de Gaulle, one of the most chaotic roundabouts in Europe on the best of days. Here, John circles round and round the rain-slicked circuit, in an echo of the moment when he immerses himself in the waterfalls of the nightclub, before ditching his car and opting for one-handed combat with his assailants. Dodging and weaving around the steady flow of cars as they dodged and weaved around the nightclub dancers, both John and his pursuers draw on the occult power of the crowd that made modern France – the France we see commemorated in Delacroix’s symbol of liberty, as well as in the Arc De Triomphe itself, a tribute to the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Now it becomes the vortical hub for an imminent post-democratic revolution, a new world order bent on undoing everything the barricade achieved.
Finally, having absorbed the putative publics of the dancers and cars, neither of which can register the action taking place amongst them for more than a second, Wick arrives at the enormous flight of stairs that leads up to Sacre-Coeur, the site of the duel. The liquefaction of the public now apotheosises into a human waterfall, wave upon wave of assassins who dissolve the climbing and tumbling over bodies that pervaded the first two acts into a single strenuous ascent. No sooner does John reach the top than the final assassin pushes him all the way back down again, in a one-man rendition of the Odessa Staircase sequence in The Battleship Potemkin, a remediation of Sergei Eisenstein’s fluid public sphere for a world where the public doesn’t exist anymore, since none of these escalating actions rouse anyone in Montmartre from their beds. Hitting the bottom with two minutes to rise back to the top, John’s only option is to take the lead of Caine, the blind fighter, and his duel opponent, and fight his way to the top with his eyes closed, subordinating sight to a new whole-body flow.
When John, and the film, finally open their eyes again, the sun has started to gleam on Sacre-Coeur, and we seem to have entered a new dimension or reality. Western motifs start to suffuse the score, but with a spaghetti western character, suggesting that we are on the verge of a similarly synthetic horizon, a neofeudalist oligarchical syncretism that is both ancient and futuristic, imminent and immanent, yet to come and yet somehow already amongst us. Paired with the fighter whose fluidity got him to the duel in the first place, John manages to contrive things so that the Marchese gets caught in the crossfire. There seems to be closure here – John also dies, and is buried at the end, but not without being told, in the most emphatic terms, that “Your obligation to the Table is satisfied, Mr. Wick.” But it’s hard not to recall John’s earlier uneasiness that the Marchese is just one head of the Hydra that is the Table, a Table that still exists, undermining the present with the future, waiting for John to come back and deal with it at more comprehensively, as the final musical tremolo suggests that he must.
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