John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)

John Wick is back, folks. If you remember (and why would you, it’s been 4 years since the last one of these), at the end of John Wick 3, our antihero took a bullet and a tumble off of the New York Continental Hotel so that his friend Winston (Ian McShane) could maintain his management of the aforementioned locale. The Continental is part of the underground masquerade of the world of high class assassins, and Wick is being targeted for failing to uphold one of their many intricate rituals and rites, with Winston having sacrificed his position within that hierarchy to help his friend, a favor that Wick repaid by letting Winston shoot him in front of an Adjudicator so that Winston appears to maintain his allegiance to the so-called “Table,” which oversees this underworld. This appears to have been for naught, unfortunately; now, some half a year or so after being taken into the care of the Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne), Wick has recovered and, before the ten minute mark, finds and kills the Elder, the only person who “sits above The Table,” resulting in Winston being confronted by a Harbinger (Clancy Brown) who tells him that the NY Continental has been deconsecrated and will be demolished, which is done within the hour. Our protagonists now have a new adversary, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), a French aristocrat with a house-sized closet full of nice suits who has been empowered by the other members of The Table to bring John Wick down, based on his vow to do so by any means necessary. Wick, now (once again? still?) on the run from The Table and their machinations, must slay his way through armies, mercenaries, and mooks in pursuit of freedom from his debts to leaders of this underworld. This time, his flight is complicated by two players who are new to us: an upstart known only as The Tracker (Shamier Anderson) whose calculated pursuit of Wick is based on trailing him without apprehending him while waiting for the bounty on Wick’s head to get bigger and bigger; and Caine (martial arts legend Donnie Yen), a sightless assassin who is also John’s old friend. 

The third installment in this franchise was a little … muddled. I lumped John Wicks 1-3 all together into the #40 slot on my list of the best 100 films of the 2010s. I stand by that ranking, although after a few years, they have started to blend together a little. On the way to the theater to see 4, I mentioned to my companion that I was disappointed that Adrianne Palicki had been killed off and would not be reappearing, and was fairly insistent that this happened in the second film, when it actually happened at the end of the first. I also noted that there was a lot of time in Italy in the third film, but that was also a mistake; the Rome stuff is all in John Wick 2. I was still riding high on my experience of watching the third one when I wrote the blurb in the above-linked piece, because looking back now, the third one is difficult to recall, with its rapidly shifting locales and less cohesive storytelling that seemed intent on forcing as many celebrity cameos as possible, with the two things I remembered most being Anjelica Huston as the leader of an academy of ballerina-assassins and Halle Berry’s training of attack dogs that liked to go for the groin . Fortunately, although this film introduces more elements of the secret underworld that exists below and throughout the world that we civilians inhabit (Harbingers, one-on-one duels that are part of “the old ways” unto which even The Table are beholden, and even a Paris-based radio station that keeps listeners updated on bounties in between covers of apropos music), they’re much easier to follow than they were in the last installment. Wick can clear his debts with The Table if he kills the Marquis in a duel, the duelists are allowed to choose champions, etc. 

Of course, that’s not what most of this film’s audience is here for. I saw this on a Tuesday night, which isn’t exactly a prime movie night for most people, and there were perhaps twenty people in the screening other than my party, mostly college-aged men who came with their buds and several couples (although I guess I’m playing into heteronormative biases by assuming that none of the pairs of men who came to see the movie together weren’t couples, but I digress). My companion and I laughed much more than the others, and I firmly believe that the laughs we experienced were intentional jokes that simply flew over the heads of the others who were present; they did laugh, but only at some of the more crass jokes, with the most notable being that Tracker’s dog lifts his leg and pees on the corpse of a dog-hating assassin who recurred throughout the film, while many of Wick’s dry subtle jabs elicited not a peep. They’re here for the killing! And boy howdy, was there a lot of it. While I find the criminal underworld in these movies fascinating, there’s no denying that they exist primarily as a vehicle for extended (very, very cool) sequences of hyperviolence and novel martial artistry. 

John Wick 4 delivers on this, with various set pieces that thrill for minutes at a time (ages when it comes to screen time) without ever becoming boring or tiresome. After a great sequence in the Osaka branch of the Continental, we also experience a breathtaking fight that takes place in a Berlin nightclub that features multi-story waterfalls; at one point, there’s a shot of Wick being held by the lapels while his assailant punches him in the rain, and all I could think about was how much more satisfying this Matrix-esque image was than the actual Matrix sequel we got a couple of years ago was. The last hour of the film is one long fight as Wick tries to make his way to the Sacré-Cœur through a succession of Paris landmarks (the cowardly Marquis having hedged his bets by putting out a bounty that encourages all of Paris’s assassins to try and get to Wick, which the Marquis hopes will prevent Wick from making it to the duel in time and thus forfeiting). Each has its own distinctive flair: a battle that rages between Wick and his attackers, some in cars, some not, amidst the traffic flowing around the Arc de Triomphe; an impressively choreographed fight involving fiery shotgun blasts that is photographed entirely from above; and, finally, a grueling fight to climb the 222 stairs to the entrance of the Sacré-Cœur, which plays out like a brutally violent game of chutes and ladders. 

If I had one disappointment, it was in the lack of the late Lance Reddick in the film. There was a projectionist error at my local theater, resulting in the film already being played when I entered the theater several minutes before showtime, and I saw a pivotal early scene that, once the film was rolled back and played at the correct start time as planned, turned out to fall about 15 minutes into it. From that point on in the film, Reddick does not appear, and this was a shame. I was a huge fan of Fringe during its initial run (and I still am, in case that wording is confusing) and my erstwhile roommate and I watched The Wire in 2018 and it was every bit the masterpiece I had always been told. I was deeply saddened to learn of Reddick’s untimely death just a week or so ago, and I was looking forward to getting to see more of him in this, one of his last roles. I’m always hesitant to fall into even the slightest of parasocial relationships with media figures, but I can say without equivocation that he was a damn fine actor; in fact, many years ago, when I was fancasting a Star Trek: The Next Generation reboot in the vein of JJ Abrams’s films (before Paramount opted to go back to the franchise’s roots), I thought he would have made a perfect Picard. Although we will never get to see that now, I will miss seeing him. May he rest in peace. 

Perhaps our real world is violent enough without these fantasies, but maybe there is a place for this, too, in our cultural landscape. But if John Wick movies are something that you love, this one is another jewel in the crown. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Last of Sheila (1973)

Swampflix readers, the internet has been essentially de-democratized. What I mean by that is that when you or I go online to look for the answer to a question or read one (1) article about a thing that we engaged with or enjoyed, we no longer get to interact with that article in a vacuum. Unless you’re VPN’d up every single time that you look for a movie review or try to purchase a replacement ice mold for the Rival snow cone maker that you purchased at an estate sale without realizing that it required a part that was not present, you’re going to start getting ads for snowball machines and your YouTube homepage is going to be flooded with think pieces and video essays about the film that you just wanted one critic’s viewpoint on. Well, that and advertisements and algorithmically driven content to make you stay on the platform longer, feel encouraged to interact with the content to drive engagement, etc. Like most Swampflix contributors, my interests are not fully in alignment with the zeitgeist, but every once in a while, they are; unfortunately, although that means that I was as excited about M3GAN as the culture at large was, discussion of her wasn’t omnipresent in the discourse of the YouTube channels that I haven’t blocked. But boy howdy did YouTube love that I loved Glass Onion. Amidst a deluge of clickbait bids titled “[Number] Things You Missed in Glass Onion!”, “All the Secret Connections between Knives Out and Glass Onion!”, and the like, I have to admit that I did encourage the algorithm just a little by watching videos that talked about the various films and TV shows that had served as inspiration for the film, because I go through periods where mysteries are all that I ever want to consume. Frequently cited as a major creative jumping-off point for the film was 1973’s The Last of Sheila

Helmed by director Herbert Ross and scripted by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim (the only screenplay credit for each), the film tells the story of film producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) and his plan to take several of his friends on a pleasure cruise aboard his private yacht. Their voyage begins, presumably not accidentally, on the anniversary of the death of Greene’s girlfriend, Sheila, who left one of his parties in a fit and was killed by a hit-and-run driver mere blocks from his house. An avid player of games of strategy and wit, Greene has planned out a series of mystery nights where his guests will go ashore with a set of clues and split up to try and solve a mystery. Each person aboard is also given a card that is to be their “secret identity” for the game, and the first of these that we see as characters open their envelopes are things like “Alcoholic,” “Shoplifter,” and “Homosexual.” Further, each of his traveling companions was there the night of Sheila’s death: Christine (Dyan Cannon), a film talent agent who’s full of wit and flirtatiousness in that a 1970s showbiz liberated way; glamorous but troubled starlet Alice (Raquel Welch) and her current beau, another film agent named Anthony (Ian McShane), who’s forever angling to get more involved with the production side of film; faded movie star and giant of another age Philip Dexter (James Mason) who’s now stuck in undignified commercials for dog food; and Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin), a screenwriter who’s been stuck doing rewrites on spaghetti westerns while his original work remains unsold and unproduced. The only person on the cruise whom we are explicitly told wasn’t there the night Sheila died isTom’s wife Lee (Joan Hackett), a kind but idle and neurotic heiress. The first night of the mystery game is largely a success, with half of the group getting to the secret while the other half is either too late or doesn’t try at all. On the second night, however, tragedy strikes, and when not everyone comes back to the boat, our cast of characters return to the site of the previous evening’s game and discover that someone from their number has died, under mysterious circumstances. 

Excited as I was to finally see this film, at a full two hours, it starts to feel its length in places. The site of the second night’s game is an abandoned monastery where the gang has to don identity-revealing robes and remain quiet until they locate the confessional in which Greene is hiding, which makes for a lot of fun as characters pass each other without we in the audience ever really knowing with whom they’re speaking or even if the characters know; unfortunately, this runabout through the monastery feels much longer than the ten minutes of screen time that it occupies and unfortunately telegraphs that a twist is coming. For the first hour of the movie, the omnipresent implication is that Greene has arranged some elaborate plan to discover which of his guests was Sheila’s killer, but a savvy viewer will know that there’s simply no time left in the runtime of the film to go through five more puzzles, and so there’s going to be a complicating factor at any moment. You’re not surprised by the second death, merely by who is the unfortunate corpse. I’ll be the first to admit that I might have been spoiled (or had a certain part of my brain atrophy while another part grew three sizes) by watching some 250+ episodes of Murder, She Wrote in the past thirteen months, so I could be stuck on that formula, but an hour in feels like an awfully late place to stick your midpoint murder twist. At the same time, there’s no fat to trim here, no extraneous beats that don’t reveal something relevant about character, motive, time, and secrecy, it’s just that the relevancy of all of these narrative moments is often revealed late in the game. 

If there are two performers who stand out to me, I’d have to name Cannon and Hackett. Every performance here is good, but Cannon is delivering a wonderfully understated performance as a woman who’s committed to living life as sensually and hedonistically as possible but whose dark past she regrets; she’s stunning. A whodunit like this doesn’t require the sincerity and humanity that she brings to her delivery of a monologue in which she confesses to having furthered her career by slipping some names to the HUAC, but it certainly elevates it. “Then those people didn’t work for a while,” she says. “Now they work. Sometimes I try and get them work. Sometimes I see them on the street and sometimes … they cross the street.” She tries to play off her guilt, but no one is convinced, least of all herself, and it’s magical. Also doing great work here is Hackett, whose frantic, nervous, chain-smoking Lee is clearly having a very hard time with all of this business right from the start as the only person aboard who doesn’t belong there, since she was hundreds of miles away when Sheila died. As the only person we can be assured isn’t a killer, she seems to understand the jeopardy of being on the boat with someone willing to cover up their hand in an accident that resulted in a death. After all, someone almost kills Christine by turning on the yacht’s propellers while she’s taking a swim; who’s to say there won’t be more “accidents”? The big stars are clearly supposed to be Mason and Benjamin, the actor and the writer, who take point on trying to spin out the narrative that would lead to the things that the group has uncovered and discovered—and let there be no mistake, they are both more than satisfactory, with Mason having the upper hand over Benjamin in the charm department—but it’s Cannon and Hackett that I’ll be thinking about weeks from now. 

Let’s talk humor. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, alongside the performances, the other tempering element that helps the movie feel like it’s got some pep in its step when it gets a little slow is the film’s comedic wit. Before she can even get on the boat, Christine complains about the lack of a drink in her hand by declaring “My mouth is so dry they could shoot Lawrence of Arabia in it,” which I’ve found myself saying every once in a while over the years without ever remembering its origin (it’s the pull quote used for the film in Douglas Brode’s compendium—and my longtime companion—Edge of Your Seat: The 100 Greatest Movie Thrillers, where it ranks at 88th). Even the jokes that characters make that are supposed to be either unfunny or in bad taste within the text got a chuckle out of me, especially those that poke fun at Hollywood and celebrity culture. This includes Greene’s mocking of Tom’s body of work as a second set of eyes on Westerns by asking him to read from a section of Fistful of Lasagna (“or whatever it’s called”). Even if the references are a half century old now, the core truths in play keep the film feeling fresh, despite some major dissonance in other areas that it’s important to address: one of the characters is outed as a child molestor, which is bad enough, but the other characters don’t really seem to think that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed or even has a glimmer of an idea of reporting him to the authorities. If there’s one thing in this film that hasn’t aged well, it’s the casualness with which that horrifying little tidbit is dropped and the lack of reaction to it. 

Already, I’ve risked giving away too much of the plot of this one, so I’ll wrap it up. Stellar performances, creative misdirects and clues, and clever jokes stashed away in little corners more than make up for the times where the film feels like it’s dragging the bottom. Although you can rent this one streaming, I’m sure your local library has a DVD that’s probably got some fun extras and easter eggs on it, so why not visit them instead? 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond