Vengeance Review | B.J. Novak Goes from the Fire Guy to the Podcast Guy in Brilliant Directorial Debut
Original films do live on! With Nope topping the box office charts last week with a $44 million domestic debut — the highest for an original film since Peele’s last film, Us — it’s proof that original films do have a home in the age of blockbusters and tentpole films galore. Now, B.J. Novak, who my generation may know as Ryan from The Office as a result of all of the rewatches that we did when the series was on Netflix, makes his directorial debut with Vengeance, a unique mystery-comedy film with a millennial twist that puts Novak’s brilliant mind and writing at the forefront.
Ben is a writer for The New York — em, sorry — The New Yorker magazine but longs to be more than just a writer; though Issa Rae — who plays his podcast editor — suggests he speak more from the heart than his brain. Ben wants to be a voice, and what better way to do that than starting what all white men in New York City have: A podcast? After all, Ben has lucked into a situation with the “Holy Grail” of podcasts: A dead white girl.
After one of his (presumably) many hookups, Ben receives “the worst phone call you’re gonna get in your life” from the brother of a former hookup — Abilene (Lio Tipton) — who was found dead. Her brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), gets Ben to travel to a rural Texas town for Abilene’s funeral where Ben is roped into giving a speech at the funeral that only Michael Scott could make more cringey as he has to scramble to come up with a moving speech (luckily, his natural knack for writing bails him out). But the trip doesn’t stop there, as Ty also convinces Ben to go full Pattinson Batman and seek vengeance with him and believes Abilene was murdered; thus kicking off the film’s adventure as Ben chronicles this journey through his voice memos app for a true crime podcast series.
If you’ve ever read B.J. Novak’s collection of short stories, One More Thing, you’ll know that Novak is somewhat of a philosopher himself. That carries over to his character in Vengeance, Ben. Opening at a New York City house party, Ben, who’s the “our conversation should be a podcast” guy, and his friend are sharing lines like “people like cookie dough because it’s unfinished; it can be anything,” while scouting out a part full of “infinite possibilities.” You’d probably just ignore a guy like Ben at a bar, but when the film is centered around him, you’ve got no choice but to go along with him.
But for as obnoxious as Novak’s character may seem on the surface, it’s a character that suits Novak as well as the plaid button-downs that he wears in the middle of West Texas. Ben really is the exemplification of a northerner that sticks out like a sour thumb anywhere south of the east coast (trust me, I spent my freshman year of college down south). He’s not looking for Chinese food like Pesci and Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, opting for WiFi passwords instead. Like your average millennial, Ben isn’t going to get his hands dirty. As he tells Ty, he doesn’t usually opt for vengeance when someone he knows dies. Fair enough, but that means he uses the second-most powerful tool in 2022: A podcast. The best way I can describe it is that Novak has written himself a character that perfectly combines the charming neuroticism of a Woody Allen-written character and the spirit of a millennial.
While Novak is great in the lead, a special shoutout is deserved for scene-stealer Ashton Kutcher, who plays Quentin Sellers, a record producer in West Texas. And while he seems cool as a cucumber and like a guy who just goes with the flow on the surface, he delivers some of the film’s best dialogue opposite of Novak and his final monologue will send chills down your spine. He’s the one who brings the film’s motifs full circle, and while the choice made with his character in the third act wouldn’t have been my first choice, you have to respect the choice coming from Novak.
Boyd Holbrook plays ‘Abilene’s brother, Ty. This is a far cry from Holbrook’s villainous turn in Logan, but this heightened burlesque portrait of a stereotypical American is the target of many (simple, yet effective jokes). On most occasions, Ty and his whole family (and perhaps all of West Texas for that matter) are painted to be bigoted, ignorant, racists. Whether it be the time when Ty says that Ben looks like a character from Schindler’s List or the racial profiling that he does when accusing someone of Abeliene’s murder, there are lines in the film that’ll make you cringe in 2022. Sure, many of Vengeance”s jokes can be boiled down to the Texans being painted as gun-loving racists, but sometimes simple is effective and it’s best not to overwrite these jokes.
Above all else, Vengeance is a movie about audience expectations. Not everything is what it seems, and Ben discovers this as he continues getting deeper into the weeds on this assignment. Vengeance begs the question of the motives of people like Ben: Is he really trying to help the family of a woman he went out with, or is this for his own good? Because at the end of the day, do we, the audience, really care about the victim and the collateral damage it causes to a family? It’s a fascinating question that bleeds into our current age where true crime series are all of the rage and where everyone has a take on social media.
A potential misconception about Vengeance is that it’s a murder-comedy in the vein of Knives Out. Like the expectations just talked about, it’s important to recognize that Vengeance is a comedy that really dips its toes into various genres. Maybe Novak’s writing style or humor takes a bit of time to adjust to, so I would recommend reading even a small portion of Novak’s collection of short stories; it’ll help get your understanding of the writing and comedy of Vengeance far better than I can. Even still, Novak is a brilliant writer and could have a promising future ahead as a filmmaker. 1970s Woody Allen has his fingerprints all over Vengeance, a stellar, or dare I say, fire, directorial debut from the “fire guy” himself, B.J. Novak.
Focus Features will release Vengeance on July 29.
WWE 2K23 Review | Acknowledge It
German suplexes and Superman punches and spears, oh my!
This review was made possible by an advance copy of the WWE 2K23 Icon Edition. Thank you to 2K Games!
In a recent article, I used the expression, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” in the context of a sequel that attempted to replicate the success of its predecessor but ultimately failed to do so. The WWE 2K series has been filled with its ups and downs — WWE 2K20 is about as low as you can get — but WWE 2K22 was a massive step in the right direction after 2K took a year off between 2K20 and 2K22. And sometimes, a fresh coat of paint is all that’s required with a dash of improvements to make for a great game, and WWE 2K23 is proof of that.
Beginning with the gameplay, 2K23 remains very similar to last year’s game. The mechanics are all the same, which works since 2K22 was a nice return to simplicity and found a happy medium between arcade-like controls and simulation. I’ll never quite understand why 2K took out the chain grappling at the beginning of matches — I lapsed from WWE from 2K15 until 2K20 — but that would be something nice to have in the future since not every match begins with the pacing of a Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg. It would especially benefit the PLE main events that have a “big fight feel,” as Michael Cole likes to say as the crowd is going nuts and the wrestlers in the ring are going through the “feeling out” process.
The ability to have two Payback abilities is nice — for example, you can use the “Low Blow” and “Comeback” features and not have to choose between the two. It’s especially helpful in Universe Mode matches when you want to link together real spots.
Speaking of Universe Mode, much like the rest of the game, it looks quite similar to last year’s game. But one key addition is the new “Rivalry Actions.” While promos are still absent — something that would really bring this mode together — these scenarios allow players to choose certain scenarios to play out pre, post, or during a match. For example, you can extend a rivalry after a big match on a PLE (the option to choose the length of rivalries is no longer in the game), or you can choose a scenario like a post-match attack that’ll take a superstar out of action for a set amount of months. The scenario that plays out is decided by factors such as momentum in the rivalry, but there’s also an option for “Free Mode” which will allow you to choose which one happens.
The “Rivalry Actions” are a great addition to the game, giving new life to some of the cutscenes in previous WWE 2K installments while also bringing in a whole new batch of them. Promos would go the extra mile in making these storylines really come to life, but for now, the “Rivalry Actions” suffice.
But 2K23 is not without its bugs. Luckily, none of these are as bad as the lows of 2K20, and I’m sure they’ll be patched with time. The first is the managers and their unreliable nature. When I assign Paul Heyman as Roman Reigns’ manager, I expect to see him walk out with his Tribal Chief and utilize the amazing entrance specific to this combination. But half of the time, Reigns comes out alone and it’s incredibly frustrating. Or if you choose two managers, only one will come out more times than not.
The AI can also be incredibly frustrating. I play on “Legend” difficulty, as the disparity between “Hard” and “Legend” is massive with the former being too easy, but multi-man matches are more frustrating than in previous years. Take the Royal Rumble match, for instance, which has always been tough to nail. Even in 2K22, there’d be occasions where the AI opponents would randomly crash the party and break up your moves. In 2K23, the AI opponents never focus on one target and break up any move happening in the ring. It makes it frustrating if you’re trying to throw someone out and get interrupted by someone who was just fighting someone in the opposite corner. The “stunned” meter is back, but definitely expedited. I never had an issue with people in multi-man matches rolling out of the ring for a minute, but because of how quickly the meter moves, you hardly have a chance for a one-on-one encounter in the ring in multi-man matches. Sure, it moves the match along, but using your fifth finisher and not being able to go for a pin is incredibly frustrating.
The small details are what save the day. The biggest one that stands out is how the champions — who traditionally come to the ring last — will usually wait a moment before their music hits. It’s a tactic that Reigns usually uses in real life, and it’s cool to see it replicated here. That extra 10 seconds between the challenger and champion’s entrance makes the match feel special.
And massive props to the developers for nailing the aesthetics. Character models look great, but the arenas, and now stadiums, are what really catches my eye. It’s unlikely we’ll ever get the uber-long entrance ramp that WWE’s stadium shows like the Royal Rumble or SummerSlam have, but they adapted and nailed the stages of those shows and Clash at the Castle (the one I was most anticipating). A small nitpick from a New Yorker, the default stadium — which typically was just Metflife Stadium in previous games — now is Metlife Stadium with a roof like the Alamodome. Most won’t care or even notice, but it’s a thought that came to mind when playing through the PLEs.
New to the WWE 2K series is the WarGames match. Apparently, it has been around since the WCW days, but it’s been used more recently on NXT. Last year’s Survivor Series PLE rebranded and utilized the match in its opening and closing matches, but due to it taking place in November, it’s a welcomed surprise to have it not only in the game but playable in the Universe mode. For those unfamiliar with this match, the WarGames match is when two teams of either three or four in 2K23 face off. One member of the team is introduced at a time — giving one team an inherent disadvantage — but the official match doesn’t begin until all of the members of each team have entered the ring. It’s really fun just like the real-life version was in November. Hopefully, the WWE continues to utilize the match in real-life and the 2K games.
MyRise got a nice refresh with a story that hits the ground running. I think it has become clear that the idea of working your way up the ranks from the Performance Center is both tired and monotonous in video game form. Last year’s MyRise was brutal to get through; you had to do a certain amount of objectives before moving on to the next part of the story similar to what the NBA 2K’s MyGM has become.
This year’s Showcase mode is centered around John Cena. It’s a nice sign of self-awareness by 2K and Cena himself to allow for players to play as the opponents in these historical recreations given that “SuperCena” was a thing, and the developers once again nail the aesthetics to recreate all of Cena’s marquee moments. Hopefully, next year’s title will include a Bloodline Showcase.
MyGM got some updates, but controlling the shows is a lot less fun than the sandbox-like playstyle of Universe mode. You’re given a budget to control Raw or Smackdown, which is cool in theory, but outside of the draft, it’s hardly riveting. At least they came to their senses and added more than one-on-one matches to it.
The biggest dud of 2K23 has to be MyFaction. I’ve never been one for the Ultimate Team modes in the Fifa or Madden franchises or the NBA 2K’s equivalent, MyTeam, and I really don’t understand the appeal of a wrestling version of it outside of the updated aesthetics that certain models get since wrestlers change their outfits all the time and their in-game models usually stay stagnant.
One last miss for me is the new pin system. The button-mashing option is still there — though I would rather not break my $75 controller — so that leaves you with the new, refreshed timing option. In previous years you had to press the “X” or “A” button when the white bar reached the red area, this year it’s similar except that the red area moves. It obviously gets smaller and moves faster the more damage you’ve taken, and you have to flip the right stick up when in that area (though I just opt to use the “X” button regardless). It’s incredibly infuriating, which maybe is the point, but not being able to kick out after a signature move has made me as angry as Jey Uso when Sami Zayn turned his back on the Bloodline.
A common complaint with yearly sports video games is that they’re glorified “roster updates” (to be fair, roster updates are more important in wrestling games but I digress), but 2K23 is another big step in the right direction after 2K22 set the entire series back on track. 2K23 is a very “Ucey” and one that we all have to acknowledge.
WWE 2K23 is available now.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods Review | David F. Sandberg’s Latest is Far From a Lights Out Sequel
Hey, at least it’s better than ‘Black Adam’!
Take this as you will, but 2019’s Shazam! is one of the DCEU’s best films. It’s no Birds of Prey — my gold standard for the DCEU — and it certainly doesn’t hold up quite as well on rewatch, but the pure adolescent joy that it radiated and its strong emotional beats made for a uniquely wholesome time for comic book movie fare.
“Nothing lasts forever,” as a character in Shazam! Fury of the Gods, the sequel to the 2019 film, warns Billy. This sentiment rings true unless you’re Kevin Feige, but it’s true in the case of Fury of the Gods, which goes bigger in almost every way than its predecessor. But clichés are clichés for a reason — and Fury of the Gods is proof that bigger is not always better.
After the events of Shazam! which saw Billy Batson (portrayed by Asher Angel in his teenage form and Zachary Levi in adult form) spread the wealth and give his foster siblings powers like him, the group of superheroes, dubbed the “Philadelphia Fiascos” by the locals, are doing their best to save the day in the City of Brotherly Love. But like any group of teenage superheroes, they haven’t quite got this whole “superhero thing” down yet, as a comic book movie character would phrase it. They’re messy, but avoid any fatal casualties, which warrants a pat on the back in a universe where Superman and Batman kill, I guess.
Back in reality, or high school, things haven’t changed much. Freddy (portrayed by Jack Dylan Grazer in his teenage form and Adam Brody in his adult form) is still being picked on by the bullies from the first, even after showing them up by having his own “Bring Your Superman to School Day,” if you remember the post-credits scene from Shazam! (don’t worry; the writers assume you don’t and will remind you that this did, in fact, happen). But he soon meets a cute new girl, Anna (Rachel Zegler), who he hits it off with. Reality comes crashing down when it’s soon discovered that Anna, whose actual name is Anthea, is a daughter of Atlas and sister of Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu). It’s up to Billy and co. to stop them from getting the magical staff from the end of the first film (another event that the film handily shows as a refresher).
Starting with the good, there are fractions of what made Shazam! work so well. When Freddy and Anna have their little meet cute, it’s actually quite endearing in the same way Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy’s first encounters were in The Amazing Spider-Man. And the team dynamic of the foster kids — which to Billy is being compromised as he nears the point of “aging out” of his foster home — largely works.
Each kid represents something different in the group, but some get more time in the sun than others. Grace Fulton, who has the distinctive chance to play both the teenage and adult versions of her character, Mary, is still contemplating her decision to not go to college and is facing the fact that being a superhero doesn’t pay the bills. Fulton has been getting better with every role as of late (watch Fall), and that carries on here.
Ross Butler, who plays the adult version of Eugene, is so charismatic but is still delegated to B-level hero in Fury of the Gods. If 13 Reasons Way proved anything, it’s that he’s capable of doing more than being a handsome jock (or superhero, in this case). Give him a Mason Gooding-like role and I’m sure he’ll show it.
The best actor of the bunch, who perfectly found a way to channel the innocence of her younger counterpart, is Meagan Good, who plays the superhero version of Darla. Faithe Herman is also great as the younger version of Darla, but it’s amazing how Good is able to perfectly channel Herman in her performance (hats off to casting director Rich Delia). She retains the wholesome eyes and childlike mind as her adult version Herman has.
But the reality of it is, none of the kids get the spotlight like Billy and Freddy do. Grazer is his usual comedic self that always cracks a smile when on screen while Angel does his best in the limited time he has in the film. It’s both a blessing and a curse to be Billy Batson, as arguably the biggest name of the superheroes, Levi, is going to be used prominently throughout the film. At least to my knowledge of Shazam! — which is nothing to bet on — there was a good balance between young and old Billy. In Fury of the Gods, however, it feels like an 80/20 split between Levi and Angel. Levi’s gawky fish out of water schtick — which is about half as endearing as a Michael Cera character — gets by but doesn’t always find himself on the right side of sweet and annoying.
Perhaps in the third film, we can return to the roots of these characters and focus more on the kids themselves. After all, if you want to namedrop the Fast & Furious franchise and its theme of family — one that’s referenced better than it is executed in Fury of the Gods — you have to hone in on that. I know Billy’s arc of searching for his mother is over, but it’s almost like a complete afterthought in Fury of the Gods until the end. Maybe it’s just that Billy is no longer the sole central character — though the third act would leave you to believe differently — or the fact that writers Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan were uninterested in exploring it with any substance. Either way, Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews, who play the foster parents Rosa and Victor Vásquez, are such a shining light in these films but are sidelined for most of Fury of the Gods.
Gayden returns after being the sole writer credited on Shazam! and is teamed with Fast & Furious veteran Morgan (which explains the namedrop). The one thing I’ll give them credit for is Anthea’s storyline and not having her be the big bad while Freddy is too busy drooling through his rose-colored lenses to see this, but the rest of the story is a miss (there’s a bit involving the song “I Need a Hero” that is almost as bad as the line in I Wanna Dance With Somebody when Whitney Houston first hears the demo of the titular song and claims it’s “a song about two people who want to dance”).
Like that bit, the rest of the humor is oftentimes dreadful and has two ends of the spectrum: There’s the side of Djimon Hounsou — who returns as the wizard from the previous film — who’s able to occasionally make the very dry jokes land, and then there’s the Helen Mirren side; who must have been returning a favor of some sort to Morgan during her time in the Fast franchise. She, above anyone else, seems the least interested to be there. But who can blame her? She didn’t even care enough to explain the synopsis on the press tour, so why would I expect anything more?
Not to only pick on the great Mirren, Liu is not much better as Kalypso. The biggest issue with these antagonists is that there’s not enough time to sit with these characters. Their motives are quite clear, but that doesn’t make you care about them or their situation. Zegler works the most out of the three sisters of Atlas because she actually gets to interact with the younger characters. The trio of Mirren, Liu and Zegler is about as talented and star-studded as you can get, they’re just wasted.
David F. Sandberg returns as the director of Fury of the Gods. While I’m a big fan of Lights Out — the best PG-13 horror flick in recent times and in dire need of a sequel — and Annabelle: Creation, something is missing in his Shazam! flicks. It’s not that he’s incapable of utilizing a big budget, but the finished product of Fury of the Gods reeks of a film spewed out of a corporate machine. The story is lackluster, even despite its best efforts, and the direction is uninspired. The CGI, in true DCEU fashion, is just as drab as usual. DC Comics have always had a grittier aesthetic to my knowledge and lean heavily into the mythology of it all, but some of the landscapes just look so dull. Say what you want about Marvel — many of their recent films have sucked — but very rarely do their films lack color. Even Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which was a disappointment in almost all areas including the potential for its visuals, had color if nothing else. Fury of the Gods is oftentimes too dark and looks stuck in the “Snyderverse” era.
And Fury of the Gods follows the tradition of the Shazam! films with a third act that mostly takes place in the air above Philadelphia, just replace Mark Strong with a wooden dragon. There’s a little more emotional depth to this fight, but the DCEU has its own formula for its third acts much like how the MCU has its formula for everything.
It’s disappointing that Fury of the Gods doesn’t live up to its predecessor. I imagine (and hope) that we’ll get more of these characters, which is great news considering how charismatic the teenage and adult versions of each are, but this second entry in the franchise is the downward dip that hopefully builds towards a satisfying trilogy closer. And just due to the standards that the DCEU has set for itself, Fury of the Gods still manages to be better than at least half of these films offhand and is a fine trip to the movies with your family — so take that as you will. Is it a good movie? No.
If we are to continue following Billy and the “Philadelphia Fiascos,” it sure does feel like we’ll only get bigger from here — I’m not a DCEU megafan, but aren’t we supposed to get Shazam vs. Black Adam? — assuming that these films continue. The whole future of the DCEU gives me a headache thinking about it, but I imagine that a third Shazam! film will be too big of an opportunity to pass up. Nevertheless, here’s hoping that any future installment scales it back and hones in on what made the first film so charming. And if nothing else, at least Fury of the Gods is better than Black Adam.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods is in theaters now.
John Wick Chapter 4 Review | Style Over Substance
This is the best action film of all time?
About halfway through John Wick: Chapter 4, Winston (Ian McShane) asks the question that all cinemagoers seeing the film will be asking: “When does it end?” Granted, in the context of the film, he’s asking what the endgame for John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is, seeing that his hopes of gaining freedom dwindle by the hour, but that same question can be asked with the heavyweight blockbuster that is Chapter 4. The nearly three-hour epic is jam-packed with some amazing choreography and cinematography, Western influences and a globe-trotting adventure that takes John all around from Osaka, Berlin and Paris. At its peak, Chapter 4 is the embodiment of what action blockbusters should be — much like its predecessors, along with Mad Max: Fury Road and Bullet Train — but it also falls victim to some of the issues that hamper the other John Wick sequels that bog it down. Let’s not confuse spectacle for quality, folks.
As most of the John Wick sequels do, Chapter 4 picks up soon after the events of Parabellum; John is left for dead after Winston shot him, and he’s left to pick up the pieces and discover his way out of this life of running. Luckily, there may be a way for John to earn his freedom, but standing in the way is a bevy of obstacles, including former friends who are now foes.
In true fashion to its predecessors, John’s journey feels like swimming against the tide. Every sequence that sees him run through nameless bounty hunters and soldiers leaves you catching your breath before an influx of more begins coming after him. The pacing of the action scenes has always been good in the series, but Chapter 4 is a pure adrenaline rush when the foot is on the gas. There are a ton of different people to shout out, but Laurent Demianoff, the fight choreographer/stunt coordinator, and Stephen Dunlevy, another stunt coordinator, really deserve their flowers.
However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The choreography is great, just look at the Berlin club sequence, but the fight sequences are heavily enhanced by the cinematography of Dan Laustsen — who has shot each of the sequels. It’s style over substance if we’re being real. There’s one particular sequence in an old building that’s like a video game (in the most flattering way possible). We get a bird’s eye view of John as he mows through people like how most Call of Duty players at the top of leaderboards think they look. It’s a bit dizzying, but this was a unique way of framing it. You also appreciate the choreography more since you can see all of the things in motion on-screen.
The Call of Duty analogy also carries over to the action itself. Following John as he runs through nameless bad guys can get repetitive, but the framing and the music are what keep you enthralled. A lot of the kills are just bullets to the face and nunchucks (my favorite weapon in the series) being swung. It’s just mindless if you really break it down (albeit fun), yet we want to call this the best action movie ever.
Chapter 4‘s best set piece, which deserves its own mention, is one the one that takes place at the Place Charles de Gaulle. If you thought New Jersey has the worst roundabouts, just wait until you see this! It’s like Grand Theft Auto meets Crossy Road in a sequence that’ll have you on the edge of your seat as cars zoom by the action.
But at the end of the day, while the spectacle elements of the film are great, what really makes these scenes different than the action sequences in the previous films? Just because the John Wick films are notoriously visceral doesn’t make each sequel the “best action movie ever,” a phrase repeated on Twitter ad nauseam. While not the same type of action movie, I think that the Mission: Impossible movies give the John Wick films a run for their money.
Plus, a lot of the action sequences are homages to films that have come before. Much like how Quentin Tarantino has paid homage to Westerns (more on this later) and Japanese films in almost all of his films, the John Wick films owe a lot to the films that have come before. Technology is on the side of John Wick, but some of Bruce Lee’s classics are just as exhilarating and innovative with their action.
Chapter 4 even borrows from Parabellum. I love the first act of Parabellum for the way it throws John to the wolves in the city that never sleeps. It’s an enthralling chase that Chapter 4 seeks to replicate — just replacing the city that never sleeps with the city of lights. They have their differences, sure, but it did feel a bit redundant outside of its usage of “Paint It, Black” (how have we not used that in one of these films?).
On the Western front, one thing Chapter 4 isn’t afraid of is putting its Western influences on full display. Sure, all of the John Wick films have Westerns in their DNA — John himself is akin to a Clint Eastwood-type character minus some of the bravado — but much like how Parabellum ended with an ode to Game of Death, Chapter 4 pays homage to the Westerns of the past. Even the score — co-composed by Tyler Bates (Pearl) and Joel J. Richard (John Wick) — infuses Americana guitar picking into its pieces. These composers are smart, and they pick their spots well. There are plenty of isolated scenes where the sounds of the fight happening on-screen are all that’s heard. Other times, the Western-sounding score is weaved in naturally into scenes.
All of this is said before even touching on Reeves and the rest of the cast. Reeves is his usual self — a rare case of a movie star who’s bulletproof because of his public persona. He’s just such a likable guy, on and off the screen, that you can’t help but root for him. That’s not to say he has improved much as an actor — he emotes roughly the same when he’s being choked by a rope and when he’s not — but again, who doesn’t love Keanu? And he’s good at this whole action thing, which is all you need in a film like Chapter 4. It’s not like the writers ever try and make Reeves do anything beyond his limitations, after all.
Donnie Yen is the biggest standout of the newcomers. He’s an assassin for the High Table who happens to be blind, but his resourcefulness pays off more times than not. Yen is the best at martial arts in the film, hands down, and outclasses the rest of the cast (though Rina Sawayama as Akira gives him a run for his money). He’s never static in his movements and is the most vibrant from a physical standpoint in the film. Hiroyuki Sanada plays Shimazu, the manager of the Osaka Continental Hotel and Akira’s father. He’s another standout in his limited screen time. My main takeaway from Chapter 4 is that I’ve been gaslit into questioning whether all of these “old friends” have been in previous entries or not.
One cast member that I know is returning is McShane as Winston. His role has continued down the trend of spewing the necessary exposition for our main character. He’s like an NPC in a boring video game, though, because his dialogue is so bland with his character in particular that he makes a duel sound mundane. It’s unfortunate that writers, Shay Hatten and Michael Finch — who served as two of the four writers on Parabellum — couldn’t find more ways to make his dialogue seem more organic rather than him word-vomiting anything important that John needs to hear. It’s sad because I don’t ever remember Winston being this much of a tool; perhaps Derek Kolstad’s presence is missed.
Not that any of these films have had stupendous dialogue, but Hatten and Finch’s script does stand out as weaker than some of the previous films — it’s not just Winston, either. The worst line, by far, is when someone calls John “unlucky” (at least that’s what I heard) after he fell 20 feet onto concrete. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be ironic, but no one laughed if that was the case.
I’ll give the writers some credit for the themes they tackle. John has to face the consequences of his actions — something that many franchises veer away from. Even if John himself is practically bulletproof, the things he’s done have a butterfly effect on those closest to him. I applaud the effort, even if it doesn’t always fully pay off, as the likes of Marvel and DC would’ve just put him through the wringer before simply giving him a happy ending full of neat bows and resolution.
Bill Skarsgård is looking more like Joe Burrow than ever as Marquis de Gramont, a member of the High Table who’s attempting to wipe out John. While many fell in love with this campy performance, he’s your typical overzealous and sloppy leader. He’s fine, but he’s not given much to do other than act “menacing” every 25 minutes or so.
Which could have been remedied had the runtime been more concise. At a hefty 169 minutes, Chapter 4 is by far the longest of the series and still left more to be desired from Laurence Fishburne and Shamier Anderson (who plays a new character called Nobody). Was it necessary to blow the other runtimes out of the water, though? Parabellum pushed it with the 131-minute runtime, but the extra 40 minutes in Chapter 4 are filled with fluff. After an exhilarating first act, the film hits a lull in the second until things are done to set the third act into motion. From there, it’s once again pedal-to-the-metal, but that second act really could have been trimmed. This is an issue present in both Chapter 2 and Parabellum and not exclusive to Chapter 4, though.
While mixed on Chapter 4, I’d lean more positive because of how fun the action can be (hey, I’m not a complete downer!). No, it’s not the greatest action movie ever, but it mostly sticks the landing of this arc of one John Wick. If anything, the runtime and the writing hold this film back from greatness. Where the franchise goes from here will be interesting, but hopefully, we won’t have to wait too much longer to hear Reeves start a line with “Yeah.”
John Wick: Chapter 4 will be released in theaters on March 24.
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