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“It’s a Lot of Suffering”: The Audacious Filmmaking Behind ‘John Wick: Chapter 4’

The latest ‘John Wick’ might be the most entertaining chapter yet—and one of the best action films in recent memory. It required the creative minds behind the assassin to up the ante in every way imaginable—while also laying the groundwork for the future of the Wick universe, with or without Keanu Reeves.

Jonathan Bartlett

There are certain things one expects from a John Wick movie, and near the top of the list is the inclusion of dogs. Ever since the first John Wick had the audacity to open with the devastating death of the eponymous hit man’s puppy—a gift from Wick’s late wife meant to open his heart to love again—the franchise has worked overtime to reassure the audience that this is a pro-dog enterprise. But after John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum incorporated a pair of imposing Belgian Malinois in a breathtaking Morocco-set action sequence, it was always going to be a challenge to raise the bar for what dogs would be capable of doing in future films.

Naturally, John Wick: Chapter 4 was up to the task. The movie introduces a new character, Mr. Nobody (played by Shamier Anderson), a self-described tracker who’s waiting for the bounty on Wick’s head to climb before he goes in for the kill and who is accompanied in every scene by his loyal canine companion. (Once again, the franchise’s breed of choice is the Belgian Malinois.) At this point in the series, the question isn’t whether Mr. Nobody’s very good dog will find itself in the middle of a fight scene, but rather when and how. But for all the ways a film production is a controlled environment, especially one that’s frequently executing high-level stunts, a dog has a mind of its own. “Our lead dog—her name’s Britta—for whatever reason, she was a crotch biter,” Chapter 4 director Chad Stahelski says. “We had all these other gags planned, and she’s like, ‘Nope. Right for the crotch.’ We’re like, ‘OK, I guess that’s our character; we’re doing crotch biting.’”

In a strange way, a dog becoming the Daniel Day-Lewis of attacking someone’s crotch epitomizes the anything-goes philosophy behind making a John Wick movie. For Stahelski, who’s directed all four films, these kinds of incidental moments on set are a feature, not a bug, and should always be embraced in the creative process. “A quick reference that I think everybody gets is the Jackie Chan of it all,” the filmmaker explains. “The mistakes are what make it great. It’s that authorship over anything.” To that end, when franchise star Keanu Reeves learned how to use nunchucks for one of Chapter 4’s action sequences, it led to an improvised attack that would get Britta’s paw of approval.

“Keanu fakes a move to the head, then hits the guy in the groin,” Stahelski says with a chuckle. “I’m like, ‘OK, I guess we’re groin hitters today with the nunchucks.’ It’s always interesting.”

Make no mistake, Chapter 4 has a lot on its plate outside of testicular violence. As with any action-oriented blockbuster, there’s an audience expectation that future sequels will up the ante. But for John Wick, in particular, that’s easier said than done. While other tentpoles can utilize special effects to help take the action to new heights (see: F9 sending a Pontiac Fiero into outer space), the John Wick movies are defined by their commitment to practical stunt work and complex fight choreography. Just as Mission: Impossible sequels hinge on Tom Cruise fulfilling his latest death wish for our entertainment, John Wick is all about Reeves adding to his skill set as one of cinema’s most iconic assassins, whether he’s wielding nunchucks or drifting through the streets of Paris in a banged-up muscle car.

If there’s a limit to how much one man can actually do, then Chapter 4 certainly takes its title character—and, by extension, Reeves—to the brink. Chapter 4 is bigger and bolder than its predecessors in every respect: a globe-trotting, heart-stopping epic already being hailed by some critics as one of the best action movies ever made. But while the previous two John Wick entries ended on tantalizing cliff-hangers, Chapter 4 is less a continuation than a culmination of Wick’s blood-soaked journey. This development will be a tough pill for some fans to swallow, but at the same time, John Wick has more than held up its end of the bargain by transforming into one of Hollywood’s premier action franchises.

“If your dreams are mountainous, you better love the climb,” Stahelski says. “It’s not about the destination; it’s about every minute you spend on that journey. It’s not what you want; it’s how much you are willing to suffer to get it. Those are things that Keanu and myself live by.”

Murray Close/Lionsgate

Picking up from the events of Parabellum, in which Wick narrowly survives falling from the New York Continental rooftop after being shot by his once-ally Winston (Ian McShane), Chapter 4 begins with the Baba Yaga hell-bent on getting revenge against those who’ve wronged him. In other words, Wick is on another collision course with the High Table, the all-powerful, Illuminati-like criminal organization that’s long tormented him from the shadows. But Wick isn’t the only one on the offensive: One member of the High Table, the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), is tasked with eliminating Wick by any means necessary and cleaning up the messes Wick’s left behind. Unfortunately for Winston, that includes the destruction of his beloved branch of the Continental, which he was trying to save by betraying Wick in the first place, as well as the execution of his trusty concierge, Charon (the late Lance Reddick).

In a further twist of the knife, the Marquis enlists Wick’s old friend Caine (Donnie Yen), a prolific, blind assassin, to terminate him—if Caine refuses, the High Table will kill his daughter. Wick is running out of allies in a quest that’s become increasingly Sisyphean. “What’s so scary about the High Table is that it’s this endless bureaucracy that just floats above you and is constantly trapping you,” Chapter 4 cowriter Shay Hatten says. “If you take out a member of the High Table, they’ll be replaced by somebody new. It’s this ever-churning organization that you just can’t beat.”

Thankfully, Wick does find one loophole that could work to his advantage. If the High Table has an Achilles’ heel, it’s an almost comical commitment to its own hierarchy and strict set of rules. (For instance: Assassins are not allowed to conduct business on Continental grounds; it’s essentially like players in capture the flag having a safe zone, except, you know, for hired killers.) Wick can challenge anyone from the High Table, the Marquis included, to an old-fashioned duel: If Wick were to prevail, the organization could no longer pursue him. The High Table may be nefarious, but it does abide by an honor system.

“The mechanism of the duel would be a way to define clear stakes and potentially grant John actual freedom,” Hatten says. “It did seem like a really clean plot device and built-in ritual that would allow us that out. But also, dueling is awesome.” The only catch: Wick must mend his relationship with the Ruska Roma, the Belarusian crime family he severed ties with in Parabellum. (According to the High Table’s rigid traditions, only members of certain families are allowed to request a duel.) Unsurprisingly, the Ruska Roma will require Wick’s [clears throat] services before bringing him back into the fold and freeing him up to duel the Marquis.

If this sounds like a lot of plates to juggle, well, it is: With a nearly three-hour run time, Chapter 4 is by far the longest film in the franchise. “It’s a lot of movie, so don’t think we don’t know how ludicrous it is,” Stahelski says. But the glorious excess of Chapter 4 is in line with the trajectory of these films, which began with Wick effectively wiping out an entire eastern European syndicate to (righteously!) avenge the death of his puppy. When that’s the baseline, the degree of difficulty in showing moviegoers something they’ve never seen before is exponentially high, and the desire to surpass the earlier sequels fuels every facet of the production.

“Chad and Keanu, they have incredibly exacting standards,” Chapter 4 cowriter Michael Finch explains. “You’re not half in on anything in John Wick. Every frame counts, every moment counts, every line counts, every shot counts, and this [is passed on] to the writers, to cinematography, to set design. They all buy into this. That’s how you get this high level of kineticism and jaw-dropping, ‘holy shit’ series of moments, one after the other.”

In that spirit, Chapter 4 was filmed across five countries—Jordan, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States—in service of 14 major action set pieces, quadrupling what was achieved in any of the previous films. Approaching this filmmaking challenge was not unlike Wick’s odyssey across the franchise: absurd, daunting, and thrilling in equal measure. “We know not to take it too seriously, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take our jobs very seriously,” Stahelski says. “Obviously, when you watch a guy fall down 100 steps, yeah, you can’t help but smile and go, ‘What the fuck are we doing?’”

Murray Close/Lionsgate

While the High Table adheres to its own strict set of rules, that doesn’t mean the Marquis isn’t allowed to think outside the box. After the parameters of their duel are negotiated in Paris—a reluctant Caine is nominated to compete on behalf of the Marquis—the showdown is scheduled for the following morning at the entrance of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. But the Marquis is banking on Wick never making it to the duel; he places a massive bounty on his head that alerts every Parisian hit man to the Baba Yaga’s presence in the city.

A bunch of assassins trying to hit the jackpot by killing Wick? We’ve seen this story before, and Wick has always lived up to his lethal reputation, having dispatched the doomed souls coming for him by using everything from pencils and throwing knives to the hind legs of a horse. But Chapter 4 pushes the envelope by literally having Wick in the driver’s seat for the franchise’s most audacious sequence to date. After taking out a set of anonymous hit men who are in possession of a Plymouth Barracuda, Wick gets behind the wheel while even more assailants pursue him in cars. The chase ultimately leads to the Arc de Triomphe, where Wick goes from drifting the vehicle while simultaneously firing a handgun to close-quarters combat on the street amid a whirlwind of drivers who aren’t stopping for the commotion.

Since shutting down several lanes around the Arc de Triomphe for two weeks was a no-go, the production also used the tarmac at Berlin’s Tegel Airport, which was decommissioned in 2021, for the sequence’s wirework and gunfights. Adding to the chaotic nature of the endeavor were the complicated logistics happening just outside the audience’s purview: The camera crews had to shoot the action while weaving through traffic themselves. “It’s a pain in the ass,” Stahelski says. “It’s a lot of effort. It’s a lot of suffering. It’s just unbelievable amounts of patience and planning that is not normal, even for our industry.”

What’s more, while some cars were digitally inserted into the background of the scene, all of the bone-crunching collisions between man and machine are the real deal, requiring the stunt performers to put a serious amount of faith in their peers. “Messing up a fight scene, someone can get hurt, or you can roll an ankle,” Stahelski explains. “But when you mess up with cars going at 40 miles an hour, opposing traffic, and someone gets hit with two tons of steel, there’s pretty dire consequences. … The trust you have to have to do blind car hits is pretty crazy in the stunt community.”

To prepare for the sequence, Reeves spent nine months training to develop his driving skills. Like an actor making sure they always hit their mark, Reeves needed to become proficient enough at drifting at high speeds so that he wouldn’t risk hitting any of the cars or, more important, the stunt performers going through the traffic on foot. If the earlier John Wick movies perfected the art of gun-fu, then Chapter 4 hinged on Reeves pioneering another form of action yielding a much higher risk: car-fu.

Of course, the process of learning how to drift like a professional stunt driver is far more arduous than, say, Neo downloading fighting techniques in The Matrix within a matter of seconds. But Reeves’s capabilities exceeded the high bar that Stahelski and stunt coordinator Scott Rogers had set for the actor. “Scott calls me halfway through the day as I’m back in L.A., and he’s like, ‘Hey, listen … he’s kind of doing 540s now [in the car],’” Stahelski says. “For whatever reason, he’s been amazing with the drifts, and he’s doing reloads and shooting the gun as he’s drifting at 40 miles an hour.” By the time Rogers sent Stahelski footage of Reeves drifting one-handed, it was already clear: He knows car-fu.

Wanting to one-up the action in a John Wick sequel is one thing, but Reeves’s ability to pull off everything that’s thrown his way and keep adding to his particular set of skills is the secret sauce of the franchise. “No matter how you cut it, no matter what you think of the color and the story and the action, it hangs on him,” Stahelski says. “You’re invested in John Wick because Keanu Reeves is John Wick.” All of which makes you ask: Does the John Wick franchise have a future if its title character is removed from the equation?

Murray Close/Lionsgate

At the risk of stating the obvious: John Wick’s been through it in these films. A day in the life of the Baba Yaga might include experiencing the heart-wrenching death of a puppy, falling from considerable heights, wandering the desert without food or water, being attacked by NBA center Boban Marjanovic at the New York Public Library, and getting rammed by cars at high speeds—to say nothing of the innumerable times he’s been stabbed or shot. The fact that Wick functions as a one-man army in a heightened universe where assassins seem to lurk around every corner adds to the mythical quality of the character. He’s like those old Chuck Norris memes, except everything you hear about Wick is actually true—executing dudes via pencil included. (Perhaps the greatest endorsement of Wick’s standing in pop culture was when he became the subject of a limited-time event in Fortnite.)

But to the franchise’s credit, Wick has always had to work for his kills—it’s one of the reasons why the action scenes are so engaging. He’s formidable, but not infallible. At the end of the day, Wick is, in theory, just like us: mortal. Even so, the prospect of Wick ever dying felt like a deal breaker: when his kill count in a single movie can hit the triple digits, it’s hard to imagine the character meeting a satisfying end against a worthy adversary. At this rate, given how frequently the movies allude to Greco-Roman mythology, the only plausible scenario for Wick’s demise appears to be Zeus coming down from Mount Olympus to smite the Baba Yaga for his transgressions. (In this hypothetical, part of me would still believe that Zeus striking Wick down would only end up pissing him off.)

Nevertheless, when Stahelski and Reeves began discussing Chapter 4 in earnest, the actor had one thing on his mind. “Keanu looks at me with a pretty wicked smile,” Stahelski says, “and just goes, ‘John Wick’s got to die.’”

From there, the real work began in figuring out just how Wick’s story would end and why it would make sense for the character. The director and star kept coming back to the idea of Wick reaching some kind of redemption. After all, the franchise is filled with characters who’ve paid the price for their association with Wick, from Willem Dafoe’s sniper, Marcus, in the first film to Charon in Chapter 4. It was time for Wick to return the favor and to put the interests of a friend ahead of his own.

Having successfully arrived at the Sacré-Coeur after taking out countless waves of assassins, Wick and Caine begin their duel. Here’s how it works: The men each take 30 paces and fire at each other; if both are still standing, they’ll move 10 paces closer. Through two rounds, Wick and Caine are wounded but ready to keep going. With just 10 paces between them, Caine delivers what appears to be the fatal shot. While still alive, Wick is gravely hurt: The Marquis, ready to bask in his victory, requests Caine’s pistol to finish the job himself. But in his euphoria, the Marquis failed to realize that Wick never fired his gun—per the rules, the next round doesn’t begin until both participants take a shot. Essentially, the Marquis tagged himself in to be executed; accordingly, Wick shoots him in the head. (It’s very satisfying.)

In the end, Wick manages to help out a friend by ensuring that Caine’s daughter is safe from the High Table. Unfortunately, the wounds he’s sustained are the kind that not even the Baba Yaga can walk away from: Sitting on the steps of the Sacré-Coeur, Wick collapses and appears to die. “It gives you a sense of peace for what this character has been through for his previous four movies,” Hatten says. “In a wonderful way, it lets John Wick rest, which is what he’s been looking for ever since he dipped the pinkie back into this world in the first movie.”

While Stahelski and the screenwriters admit that Lionsgate had reservations about one of its biggest franchises killing off its main character, the door is always open for Wick to return. Even though Chapter 4 ends with Winston and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) standing over Wick’s tombstone in New York—placed next to his wife’s, of course—we don’t actually see what happens between the events at the Sacré-Coeur and the grave site. “I think we could all walk away believing that it may be open to interpretation of what actually is in that hole in the ground,” Finch says.

But just because there’s enough ambiguity in Wick’s final moments doesn’t mean there are plans to revive the character anytime soon, if ever. Since Stahelski has established himself as one of our finest contemporary action filmmakers, his name has been floated for a few IP projects in various stages of development, including a Highlander reboot and film adaptations of the Ghost of Tsushima video game and Rainbow Six novel. Whatever comes next, Stahelski’s plate should be full, and deservedly so. Reeves, meanwhile, is in the midst of a Keanussaince that’s been largely spurred by the success of the John Wick movies. (Fingers crossed on the long-awaited Constantine sequel coming to fruition.)

As for the John Wick franchise, it will move forward despite losing its title character. The Continental, a limited series following Winston in the 1970s, will be coming to Peacock, though no release date has been announced. (Between The Continental originally being in the works at Starz before it was sold to Peacock and the controversial casting of Mel Gibson, it’s been a rocky road to the small screen.) Then there’s Ballerina, a spin-off film that Hatten developed as an original screenplay before it was acquired by Lionsgate and reworked to fit into the John Wick universe—Reeves cameo and all. (Promising Young Woman writer-director Emerald Fennell was later brought in to punch up the script.) Set between the events of Parabellum and Chapter 4, the movie stars Ana de Armas as the titular ballerina—a member of the ballet theater run by the Ruska Roma in New York—as she seeks revenge against the people who killed her family. “By telling the story of this new character, you’re going to still learn some pieces about what John might have gone through in his own journeys into this world,” Hatten says.

Whether these offshoots will be able to sustain the franchise remains to be seen. But even if the John Wick universe is closer to its end than its beginning, the creative architects behind the four mainline films can hold their heads high. In a blockbuster era defined by superheroes and remakes, John Wick came out of the blue with a risky proposition—killing off a puppy to fuel a revenge saga—that ended up revitalizing a beloved movie star’s career while delivering some of the most stunning action sequences of the past decade. True to form, the Baba Yaga went out with a bang.

“My favorite director, Bob Fosse, he’s got this great quote: ‘50 percent of directing is coming up with crazy ideas, and the other 50 percent is finding people crazier than you to pull them off,’” Stahelski says. “We certainly had that in spades.”

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