24 Lies a Second: The Wick Man

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The Wick Man

Hi Dim. Sorry about the mix-up last week. This time I am absolutely certain I've fixed the ampersand problem. A.

There are films which, by their very nature, are particularly suited to give actors a chance to shine. Other films are directors' films. There are cinematographers' films, special-effects artists' films, costume and set designers' films. There are probably editors' films, too. John Wick – Chapter 4 is not any of these sorts of film. Given director Chad Stahelski's former line of work, it isn't really a surprise that this is a stuntman's film, or perhaps a fight choreographer's film.

The Wick films have grown impressively from a fairly modest opening episode to what surely qualifies as a major franchise, spiralling further and further away from any recognisable reality in the process (they are a bit like the Fast wiggly shape Furious films in that respect). In the case of this latest offering, that growth is literal, as it clocks in at an intimidating 169 minutes in length: much longer than any of the others; longer than 2001; longer, even, than Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody. (In this case, John Wick: I Wanna Execute Somebody With A Point-Blank Shot To The Head would probably be an appropriate title.)

This is another of those films which has been held up by the pandemic, as it was originally scheduled to come out in 2021. The main consequence of the delay, I think, is that for those of us who are only casual Wick-watchers, the situation at the end of the end of the last film has faded that bit further in our memories. Every big franchise these days seems to assume that everyone watching it is a deeply-invested fan who has recently watched every previous film in the series, and so they don't bother with anything as mundane as an actual recap of the story so far. I know we have Wiki for that sort of thing now, but even so, it just seems a bit discourteous to me. How hard would it be?

So let me, without the benefit of Wiki or indeed ChatbotGPT, try to recall what happened in the first three John Wick films. John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a retired and recently-widowed hitman, was very cross when some opportunistic gangsters stole his car and shot his dog. So he hunted them down and killed them all, along with many of their friends and relations. This apparently constituted a breach of the terms of his retirement, so someone called in a favour to make him do One Last Job. After this he shot the man he owed a favour, even though this was a breach of the elaborate and arcane rules hitmen operate by the strange world of John Wick. With a huge price on his head, he was forced to flee New York and seek some sort of penance, which involved chopping one of his own fingers off with a chisel. Wie auch immer, this didn't seem to do the trick and he ended up having to fend off an army of soldiers in the hotel of his associate Winston (Ian McShane). In the end, however, he was betrayed by Winston and shot off the top of the hotel.

However, as John Wick seems to have the sort of resistance to injury normally only associated with Captain Scarlet or Popeye, the new film finds him hiding out with another ally, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and plotting his revenge on something called the High Table (who I suppose are like the Illuminati of gangsters and hired killers). Off he goes on his rampage of revenge, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake, occasionally pausing to deliver his catchphrase ('Yeeahhh,' which is a catchphrase only Keanu Reeves could reasonably hope to get away with).

The rest of the plot of the film is almost entirely abstract, I'm afraid, and concerns Wick's convoluted quest to get to the man appointed to kill him (Bill Skarsgard). Wick has to challenge him to an honour duel to the death, but first he needs to get his credentials sorted out, which involves going to Berlin and killing a senior German criminal… comparisons to the plot of a computer game seem to me to be entirely justified, as the film boils down to a succession of set pieces, in which Reeves and the other actors (and many, many stuntmen) enter an environment (a luxury hotel, a nightclub, central Paris) and proceed to be extremely violent towards each other at great length, often inflicting significant property damage in the process. It's a film which develops and resolves through gun battles and fist fights – while I suppose you could trim most of these down to a reasonable length and be left with a much more manageable film which still had a functional plot, to do so would be to miss the point of the film. The plot is just a mechanism to get from one action sequence to another; they are the point of the film – although mixed in with them are little vignettes of stoicism, honour, and loyalty, which is what passes for character development in a John Wick film.

I'm probably sounding a bit sniffy there, which is not really my intention. While I do think John Wick 4 definitely qualifies as too much of a good thing, it's still in many ways a very good thing – well, if you like really long action sequences, anyway. These aren't quite as viscerally graphic as the ones in John Wick 3, which renders the film a bit less open to suggestions that it's nothing but a kind of pornography of violence – it's probably more like a sort of erotica of violence, with a much greater focus on the artistic effect achieved than the act itself. Certainly, given a choice between realism and stylishness, the film always jumps the same way: attractive young people at a Berlin club continue dancing in slow motion, apparently oblivious to Reeves and a man in a fat suit (Scott Adkins) trying to beat each other to death on the dance floor.

It's not like there aren't other incidental pleasures, either: the man tapped by the High Table to end Wick's reign of terror is his old friend Caine, a blind hitman who comes up with some interesting new uses for motion-activated doorbells. Caine is played by Donnie Yen, who is always good in this sort of film (it does occur to me that there may be some people under the impression that Donnie Yen is actually blind, given his high profile roles playing blind martial artists here and in Rogue One). Caine's name isn't the only allusion to the old Kung Fu TV show I spotted here; I was quite amused by a piece on this franchise in the legitimate media which declared ‘no-one could accuse the John Wick series of being derivative…' – well, I can, and I do! There's another sequence which is a lengthy raid on The Warriors, for example. But as usual, spotting this sort of thing is part of the fun.

And John Wick – Chapter 4 is fun, for the most part. It's exhaustingly long, and most of the major sequences could do with a bit of a trim, but the tone of the thing is well judged and it does have a sense of humour about itself. By all accounts Keanu Reeves and the other key creative individuals involved have decided that this will be the last John Wick, or at least the last for a good while. I don't think it's quite as successful as the second or third films, but if it is the conclusion, it's one which does the series justice.

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