Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4


Given that, at my ripe old age, I'm inherently averse to crowds, night driving, and the threat of going to bed after 9:30, I was initially jazzed to catch a 4 p.m. screening of the two-hour-50-minute John Wick: Chapter 4 on the Thursday before it “officially” debuted.

In retrospect, however, I should have faced my phobias head-on, because I would have killed to have seen this third sequel in a huge, packed, opening-weekend auditorium. It's not just that director Chad Strahelski's action thriller is great – that it is, for my money, the first legitimately great movie of 2023. But the laughs that I heard (and contributed to) during my weekday-afternoon showing were frequent and joyous, and our Keanu Reeves-inspired “Whoa!!!”s were boisterous and deserved … and there were only about 20 of us there. I can only imagine, with envy, the seismic fun of sharing this knockout experience with 100-plus others.

For the record, while I'm not indifferent to the series' appeal, I'd hardly consider myself a John Wick super-fan. I've seen each of Strahelski's previous installments precisely once, only unreservedly loved the original, and can never quite remember, with every new chapter, what was happening the last time around. (My recollection of past events generally stops with “John is pissed because someone killed his dog,” which was a tragedy the guy must've gotten over, like, ages ago.) Yet Strahelski and franchise creator Derek Kolstad, back in 2014, did such a marvelous job of establishing a distinct, nihilistic milieu with intensely specific ethical codes and wonderfully old-fashioned flourishes – blackboards! switchboard operators! – that it takes all of 60 seconds, upon entering a JW followup, to feel up-to-speed and right at home. The cast, of course, also helps in that regard. So even if you don't recall who Keanu was mad at or running from or why, or whether Ian McShane's Winston wants to help John or hurt him or both, you can still luxuriate in the actors' relaxed control: McShane with his sardonic imperiousness; Reeves with his surfer-stoner cadences that just barely – and magically – avoid amateurishness. (Wick says “I'm going to need a … gun” like a man who's never said “gun” before, which can't possibly be the case, right?)

Ian McShane and Bill Skarsgård in John Wick: Chapter 4

But despite the additional presences of Laurence Fishburne, Shamier Anderson (whose new character Mr. Nobody, amusingly, has a pooch of his own), the already-sorely-missed Lance Reddick, and other talents, to say nothing of the kick of seeing the bounty on John's head raised via an eraser and a stick of chalk, we're not exactly here for the performers or the accoutrements. We're here for the action, more accurately the killings, and on that front Chapter 4 delivers like few blockbusters this century have. Compressing the sprawling narrative down to its most basic tenets, this third sequel is, in effect, a Sergio Leone-styled spaghetti Western, with the “retired” assassin Wick given one chance at appeasing the puppet masters of the High Table who have declared him “excommunicado.” If he triumphs in a duel to the death against the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) – a senior, Eurotrash member of the High Table – all will be forgiven. Employing, however, the aid of a blind contract killer (Donnie Yen's Caine) who happens to be one of John's friends, the Marquis plans to cheat. Our stalwart hero, naturally, doesn't know the meaning of the word.

And so we go, for nearly three glorious hours, as John, in his sleek designer suit, hops the globe and dispatches his nemeses and involves himself in one jaw-droppingly astounding set piece after another. See enough films of this type and you begin to sense that you've seen it all: the shoot-outs; the martial-arts choreography; the mano-a-mano combat. Yet Chapter 4 doesn't look or feel quite like anything that's come before it, not even the previous Wicks, and its brilliance lies in how seemingly effortlessly Strahelski has melded the simple with the mind-bogglingly complex.

Despite Dan Lausten's continually arresting, alternately foreboding and neon-lit cinematography and the shifts in locale that whisk us to Manhattan, Japan, Europe, the Middle East, and beyond, the movie is almost austere in its economy. There are multitudinous gun- and fistfights, to be sure, but no police presence and almost nothing in the way of innocent bystanders; in the sequence set in a noisy, jam-packed nightclub where it appears to be raining inside, the soaked young dancers are completely oblivious to the murderous mayhem taking place amidst them. Meanwhile, as screenwriters Shay Hatten's and Michael Finch's central conceit promises, the film's climax – landing after more than two-and-a-half hours and literally hundreds of corpses – is a showdown involving all of two men and fewer than 10 bullets. Keanu's bearing and readings may have been suggesting Clint Eastwood throughout, but here, he's undeniably Gary Cooper.

Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4

That's the simple. The mind-bogglingly complex comes with Strahelski's staging of the action scenes, the vast majority of which are executed without cuts and viewed in medium or long shots – the better to show (yet not necessarily show off) all the grueling hard work of the stunt team and, it should be said, our exquisitely graceful, 58-year-old star. Again, my screening wasn't as populated as most over the weekend no doubt were, and I didn't register any clapping. But I sincerely hope there was hearty, overwhelmed applause and overwhelmed “WTF?!” laughter during that nightclub bit, and the frenzied melee in the Parisian traffic circle (where Wick is hit by, conservative estimate, a million cars), and the staggering assault viewed from above that suggests a drone witnessing an interior apocalypse without the hindrance of ceilings and roofs.

And while I got almost as much of a kick from the sotto voce poker game at which even a literal blind man knew that some serious chicanery going on, I really hope larger crowds went as nuts as mine did when John Wick ascended the French landmark of the 222 Montmartre steps with guns a-blazin' – an exhilarating sight that was followed by a perfectly timed, utterly hysterical joke it would be treasonous to spoil. I adored every nanosecond of John Wick: Chapter 4. Its stakes may be heavy, yet for nearly three hours, and for several hours after leaving the theater, my spirits were dancing on air.

Sally Hawkins in The Lost King


“Based on a true story” is such a slippery descriptor, isn't it? As many movies do, director Stephen Frears' The Lost King opens with this information, and the story the film details is, basically, true. With Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope serving as screenwriters, Frears' latest tells of how British office drone Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins), just over a decade ago, spearheaded a successful campaign to find and excavate the long-lost remains of King Richard III, which Langley correctly surmised were located beneath the asphalt of a parking lot in Leicester. It's a fascinating, rather inspiring real-life detective saga that somehow escaped my awareness back in 2012. It's also enjoyable to watch Langley – a single mother suffering from chronic-fatigue syndrome – win over the eccentrics at the local Richard III Society while simultaneously sticking it to a famed archaeologist (Mark Addy), the know-it-alls at the University of Leicester, and her ex-husband, whom Coogan plays without a shred of likability even after his aloof bastard has his inevitable change of heart.

Yet there's an enormous caveat built into the “based on a true story” angle here. Early in the movie, Langley has her light-bulb moment regarding her eventual Richard obsession while attending a stage presentation of Shakespeare's Richard III – a production, I must say, that looked absolutely sensational. With the historical drama set on a long thrust stage with minimal set pieces and hot-red floor lights illuminating the performers, Richard III's title character (played by Harry Lloyd) makes devastating, unbroken eye contact with Langley during one of his soliloquies, and the actor's passion and handsomeness are inarguable. Who wouldn't be taken by this guy – and perhaps, as a result, want to seek centuries-delayed justice for the monarch he portrayed? Yet I'm not sure that's a good-enough reason for Lloyd's Richard, every few minutes in the film, to keep showing up in Langley's life again and again and again: first as an apparition whom Langley sees but who doesn't speak; then as a frequent companion who engages in (imagined) conversation with our heroine; then as an active presence – occasionally on horseback – guiding Langley toward her mission's ultimate triumph.

Since viewing The Lost King, I haven't done any followup research on its subject, and can't attest to whether Langley's youngest son, as the film relates, did indeed see his mom in the backyard deep in conversation with a costumed former king who wasn't there. But I can say that the conceit didn't sit right, and certainly didn't feel “based on a true story,” and every time Langley engaged in debate and queries with her apparition, I sighed a little, finding these excursions mere time-wasters – silly, needless ones – in a tale that would have been plenty interesting without them. (As a bitchy-film-geek aside, I was also bothered when Langley's ex took their boys to a screening of the James Bond flick Skyfall, which, at the time of the movie's setting, didn't debut in London for another several months.) No matter. Frears' serious-minded Brit-com is still easy to sit through, and the narrative is strong enough to have survived even weaker presentation, and Sally Hawkins, as usual, is abjectly magnificent – I can't think of a single other actor who so routinely makes salt-of-the-earth decency and middle-class relatability quite this captivating. I had a fine time at the movie. But lemme know if that Richard III we get snippets of here ever tours. I'll be first in line for tickets.

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