The following may contains spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 4!
Keanu Reeves’ training for the John Wick franchise has been well documented by now. Dozens of videos showing Reeves working on Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo with the Machados, and becoming worryingly proficient with firearms have flooded the internet since the franchise’s first film skyrocketed in popularity. One thing the series doesn’t get enough credit for is how well it blends its fantastic fight choreography with increasingly bolder cinematography to create some of the best fight scenes ever put to film.
The first John Wick (2014) film is Chad Stahelski’s directorial debut. Before helping to create and grow the franchise, Stahelski was formerly Reeves’ stunt double on The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003), as well as performing in and co-ordinating the stunts for other major blockbusters like Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), 300 (2006) and Die Hard 4.0 (2007). While the majority of the film is shot with a drab, monochromatic colour palette, the famous nightclub fight scene showcased the bright neon aesthetic the series would become known for.
In the sequel, Stahelski and DOP Dan Laustsen began experimenting with more prominent cinematography and complicated set design. The hall of mirrors fight scene is the best example of this. The complexity of combining mirrors with large studio cameras is a terrifying task for newer directors. Still, Stahelski rose to the challenge and produced what is now a highlight of the entire quadrilogy. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) also features an even grander nightclub scene (a concept which is now a staple of the series) which features twice as many red shirts and double the neon. The scene also makes extensive use of bright backlighting to display the action in vivid silhouettes.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) takes a subtler approach to its cinematography, utilising dimmed fluorescent lights to create a more realistic, but still cinematic picture. The covert cinematography is prevalent in the first fight scene in the New York Public Library, the legendary hall of knives fight, and the amazingly choreographed horseback shootout through the streets of NYC. While this style of lighting may not be as out of the box as the first 2 films, its grounded style helps to make the hyper-realistic action more believable. Although, John Wick: Chapter 3 wouldn’t be complete without at least one neon-lit fight. Facing off against a legend of kung-fu cinema, Mark Dacascos, along with Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid series (2011-2014), the film’s final fight is a neon spectacle that mixes shots of fluorescent key lighting and silhouettes against the colourful electric backdrops to create a grandiose finale.
A Perfect Culmination
John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023) conveys Stahelski’s growth as a filmmaker by expertly culminating the styles, techniques and aesthetics that he was experimenting with in the previous films.
There are several scenes and locations in the film that repeat the style and aesthetics of its predecessors. The first prolonged fight scene in the Tokyo branch of ‘The Continental’ shares a stylistic resemblance to the finale of Chapter 3. The signature nightclub setting also makes a grand return in the 4th outing, this time based in Germany, and blends neon lights with strobe effects and borderline BDSM outfits to create a truly surreal image. Pair that with action legend Scott Adkins in a fat suit, and the hyperrealistic choreography the 87Eleven stunt team has become famous for, and you’ve got cinematic gold. Some people complained about the lighting style of Chapters 2 & 3 due to the glaring neon and strobe effects often impairing the neat choreography and making the action hard to decipher. The German nightclub scene showed that Stahelski and Laustsen have perfected the recipe, using the fluorescent neon to accentuate the action, and saving the strobe effects for the breaths between fight sequences.
The 4th film also takes visual clues from the genres that influence its themes, most notably, classic Westerns. Considering his ‘excomminicado’ status, Wick is effectively a cowboy operating outside the ‘law’ (or rules set by the High Table). Stahelski draws from the Western genre in two key scenes. The first is the film’s opening shot – a bright landscape of the sun rising over the Moroccan desert. The mirage that obscures centre frame makes the image reminiscent of the sweeping wide shots of Texan deserts found in classic cowboy cinema. As the 4 silhouettes appear on horseback over the horizon, the shot calls back to famous Westerns like Dances With Wolves (1990) and True Grit (1969) which saw the enemies – often Native Americans – wailing out and appearing from over the horizon to attack.
The scene’s action also acutely references the first ever Western The Great Train Robbery (1903). While horse fall stunts are commonplace in Westerns, they often feature many cuts and close-ups to obscure the fall, due to the risky nature of the action. However, thanks to Stahelski’s history in the stunt industry, and his relationship with the 87Eleven team, every hard fall from horseback can be clearly shown in one continuous take – as it was back in the 1903 classic – immersing the viewer in the reality of the action.
The final showdown between Wick and Donnie Yen’s ‘Caine’ also makes an overt reference to Western cinema. The “standoff” is perhaps the most famous trope of the Western genre, made popular by the films of John Wayne (despite their historical inaccuracy). The scene also utilises the infamous, ‘holster shot’ to build tension and suspense as the two characters stare each other down.
Despite the numerous occasions Wick should have succumbed to his injuries over the 4 films, Stahelski still presents the action as grounded and real. The first film cemented this using an almost exclusively monochromatic, mundane colour palette to ground the visuals – with the exception of the nightclub scene. Despite Chapter 4’s hyper-stylization, several of the fight scenes return to the grounded style that kickstarted the franchise. The best use of this is during the exhausting fight up the Sacré-Coeur stairs in Paris. The conflict in the scene is caused by Wick’s time limit to reach the top. Like most of the fights in the series, it’s not a question of whether Wick survives the fight, but rather if he achieves a secondary goal whilst fighting. The fight is nearly 10 minutes long and is intentionally exhausting to watch. Had this scene been shot with the stylized lighting and neon used in the ‘cooler’ fights, it would remove an element of tension from the scene. The muted, subtle cinematography draws the viewers’ attention to the fight and the ridiculous number of henchmen Wick has to go through, rather than stealing the audience’s attention.
Finally, Chapter 4 contains what might be the best gunfight in the entire series, thanks to Stahelski’s confidence to experiment with camera angles and Reeves’ dedication to his training. The chaotic battle in a French apartment building mimics the style of top-down video games. The fight starts using regular eye level wide-shots, however, the camera then booms upwards and tilts down to face the action from above. As well as this unique camera angle, the fight is shot in one long, glorious take. ‘Oners’ as they’ve come to be known are nothing new, especially for fight scenes. Many action films attempt to use them to impress the audience with varying levels of success. The original Oldboy (2003) is perhaps the most successful example and, ironically, the remake (2013) is possibly the least. What makes the one-take fight in Chapter 4 so impressive is the sheer level of carnage and intricacy of the choreography, which can only be achieved when your lead actor dedicates himself to doing “98%” of all the stuns (according to Stahelski). The scene was inspired by the 2019 video game The Honk Kong Massacre, which utilises an overhead camera position. In an interview with Polygon, second-unit director Scott Rogers spoke about Stahelski’s vision for the scene:
“Chad had this vision — he showed us a promo for a video game. It was [like], I want to do this — this is cool, because you see all the characters, and in storytelling terms, it allows you for the first time to see what’s coming to John Wick, and what he’s got to deal with before he sees it. So there’s a little foreshadowing — you see the guys coming from every direction, as opposed to being [set up] horizontally, where you don’t know what’s around the corner.”-Scott Rogers
The scene is a highlight of the franchise, and possibly one of the best fight scenes in the action genre. Unlike the stairway fight, this scene is very much about showcasing action spectacle. On top of the unique camera work, the use of ‘Dragon’s Breath’ rounds creates a vibrant orange glow that elevates the visual aesthetic and allows Stahelski to incorporate fire stunts – an element of stunt work that is surprisingly under-utilised in the John Wick franchise.
Thanks to its incredible cohesion of hyper-stylized lighting and camera angles with incredible fight choreography, the John Wick quadrilogy will definitively go down as one of the best (if not THE best) action franchises of all time. The hyper-realism of the fight scenes has inspired its own sub-genre of action cinema that mimics Stahelski’s style of filmmaking. This sub-genre includes films like Atomic Blonde (2017), Netflix’s Extraction (2020), and the more recent Nobody (2021) starring Bob Odenkirk. The possibility of a John Wick: Chapter 5 is sadly (but rightly) slim, however, Stahleski, Reeves, and the production studios should feel proud that they have collectively produced an all-time great.
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