With the fourth entry of the series already gaining massive praise and admiration all around, I guess it can be said without a shred of doubt that as a franchise, “John Wick” has managed to revolutionize an entire genre of action-oriented movies for the modern audience, all the while staying faithful and conveying adulation to the classic action genre. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s and director Chad Stahelski’s inventive vision and lead actor Keanu Reeves’ passion led to making the simplistic arc of an urban legend engaging and unique. Through the use of a uniquely choreographed hands-on approach to the fight sequences, wide shots and long takes, appropriate fight settings, evocative visuals, detailed worldbuilding, and a keen sense of self-awareness—the franchise became one of the most influential ones.
In the recently released fourth part, the visual brilliance is even more perceivable and helps enrich the narrative, thanks to Guillermo Del Toro’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Dan Lausten, working his magic. The neon-drenched cityscape and somber hues fans enjoyed in the previous three installments already gave the series a distinctive identity, and with the fourth one, the makers have pushed the benchmark even further by showing how vibrantly beautiful even the scenes of violence can be.
Cinematographer Dan Lausten and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh collaborated to bring the latest chapter of John Wick’s modern mythology to life through set pieces, visual cues, unique cinematography, and an acknowledgment of genre movies. From the beginning itself, as the Bowery King recites “Dante’s Inferno,” particularly the lines containing an introduction to Hell, and lights up a pentagram, the point that John’s operating field is akin to infernal abyss becomes conveyed. In the following scene, as John chases the Elder’s men through the scorching desert, he appears to be emerging from the horizon with the sun in the background. John’s all-black attire, riding a dark steed, makes him appear like a grim reaper, which he is—an unstoppable killing machine. The imagery also creates a sharp contrast to the otherwise lighter-toned background and makes John stand out as the dominant force.
After killing the Elder, John Wick takes shelter in the Osaka Continental, which is being managed by John’s loyal friend, Shimazu Koji. The DOP and production design team made sure to attribute the three major settings of the movie—Osaka, Berlin, and Paris—to themselves and integrated them beautifully into the fight sequences. After introducing Osaka’s vibrant mood through the famously cluttered, neon-lit consumer quarters of Dotonbori, the scene shifts to the Continental hotel, where the majority of the fight sequences are going to take place. Shimazu addresses John, and he is shown to be standing in front of a cherry blossom tree, his posture and the imagery reminiscent of an elder Ronin standing in front of a Sakura in medieval Japan, recounting the feelings of loss, guilt, and regret of a lifetime.
Sakura in Japan is both a symbol of life and death, beauty and renewal—a theme heavily hinted at not only in this installment but throughout the series itself. At the moment, the red hue engulfs John, evoking the dread he has always symbolized but probably veering toward the theme of sacrifice, which John eventually makes at the end of the movie. When the Yakuza operatives of Koji surround the Marquis’ henchmen in the hotel and gear up for inevitable bloodshed, the background color changes to green, signifying a sense of darkness and danger.
As the fights move to the antique room of the Continental, the samurai-themed Ukiyo-e paintings and samurai armors of differing periods that adorn the room lend a sense of grandiosity to the fight scenes, even the way John’s brutal finishing of an enforcer splatters blood in a distinctive way over the Taiko (war drums). The set design stay on point as John fights another bunch of Marquis’ operatives in the bamboo thicket arena and faces a new opponent in the form of Mr. Nobody. However, the best of Japan’s culture-oriented set piece was saved for the last, as Caine waits for Koji in a garden shrine on the exit route, with a death bell appropriately symbolizing his role in the background.
The shot introduces Caine by showing the bodies of two deceased operatives of the Marquis, as Caine ended their lives to ensure they didn’t get to Koji first, and he is reluctant to engage in a battle with his old friend Koji. But as circumstances force them to, and the two friends prepare for a battle to the death, the environment and the background theme evoke the familiar tragic motif associated with such scenarios as those in bygone eras of Asian martial arts movies. As Caine’s Jian clashes with Koji’s Katana, we almost feel transported back to the feudal ages, witnessing masters of differing principles of martial arts trying to best each other. The entire setup and scene crafting was a beautiful ode to Japanese Chanbara movies, both thematically and as the undercurrents of guilt, despair, honor, and regret made their presence felt.
As John leaves to board a subway, a deceased Koji’s grieving daughter Akira meets him for one last time. The scene floods with red, symbolizing the rage, destructive feelings, and malicious intent now taking hold of Akira. After John returns to New York to convey his condolences for Charon, the bitter winter and the bluish hue cue the pain associated with the loss of a friend—someone who became a victim of the brutal battle between the system and a few rebels. As John goes to Berlin to be reinstated in the crime family Ruska Roma, he is tasked with eliminating the German mob boss Killa to earn the family crest. The fight sequence in Killa’s nightclub inside the waterfall with strong lights in the background, turning figures into silhouettes, elevates the scene. The colors are vibrant, but they are more gaudy than orderly or elegant, unlike in Japan. John is back into the apathetic grounds of manhunting where he started his journey.
The scene shifts to Paris, where Winston goes to the Marquis to inform him of John’s legitimate claim and challenge him to single combat. A member of the aristocracy, the Marquis sits in a hall filled with classic paintings, but in front of him is the portrait of “Liberty Leading the People,” drawn by artist Eugene Delacroix. The painting commemorates the July Revolution, with the leading lady seen as the personification of liberty and champion of people against the tyranny of the constitutional monarchy, and the heaped corpses of proletariat become her pedestal. Given their respective positions, John and the High Table, represented by the Marquis, are subtly symbolized by the portrait.
After the duel is finalized, John and Caine meet at the gothic, intricately detailed, candle-lit cathedral in Paris. The tone of sermons in the background and the ornate interior evoke a religious undertone, contrasting the conditions of two souls who can no longer pray for redemption after engaging in a sinful life. Later, as John is chased by hordes of assassins in Paris, there is a brilliant sequence showing the eponymous character shooting his way through an apartment full of assassins as the camera tracks him overhead and continues to do so through floors and rooms in one take. It almost resembles a top-down RPG game, especially the game titled “The Hong Kong Massacre” (2019), developed by Vreski. However, the best portion of the visual craft of the Paris sequence is left for the last, as John and Caine prepare for the duel of their lives in front of Sacre Coeur at dawn. A new day begins, and the golden hour signifies the new possibilities that their freedom offers. Ending the duel by killing the Marquis and earning his freedom, a grievously wounded John collapses on the stairs of the basilica, and the darkness of the skies gets pierced by the sunlight that touches the weary warrior—almost a chance of salvation. John looks at the rising sun, remembers the life unlived for a final time, and utters his beloved wife’s name before lying down, possibly to the possibility of eternal rest. The ending couldn’t have been more poetic.
With its meticulous and beautiful visual craft, “John Wick: Chapter 4” rekindled the memories of “The Batman” in a number of ways, but mostly in the way the visuals were used as a narrative device. The perfect blend of style and substance will etch the movie in the memories of the viewers for a long time.