In Review: 'John Wick: Chapter 4,' 'Tori and Lokita,' 'The Five Devils'
More is more in the latest and longest 'John Wick' sequel. In limited release, the Dardennes paint more desperate characters into a corner and Adèle Exarchopoulos smells trouble in a French fantasy.
John Wick: Chapter 4
Dir. Chad Stahelski
When Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), the antagonist of the first John Wick film, describes its hero as a “man of focus, commitment, and sheer will,” he could just as easily be laying down a mission statement for the film and its sequels. Directed by the team of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (though only Stahelski is credited on screen), filmmakers with roots in the stunt world, the series began with a lean and relentless revenge thriller that pitted retired hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) against a city filled with skilled killers determined to take him down. (Spoiler: they fail, hence John Wick: Chapter 2, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum and now John Wick: Chapter 4.)
Four films in, the scope has expanded to a global scale, but the philosophy guiding both the movie and its protagonist remains the same: don’t lose sight of why you’re here. For Wick, that means continuing his attempts to get the powerful crime organization The High Table off his back (even if that requires killing all of them). For John Wick: Chapter 4, that means delivering action sequences that make its predecessors look like warm-ups.
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Those are formidable tasks for both. Chapter 4’s first set piece, a battle in the desert, 0nly confirms the reach and power of the High Table and the effort needed to top the John Wicks that came before. If a horseback battle conducted while thundering across the sand is your starting point, where do you go from there? The answer at which Stahelski (directing solo, as he has since Chapter 2) arrives: send Wick from New York to Osaka, Berlin, and Paris while creating eye-popping action scenes custom-made to each locale. This also involves bringing back some familiar characters like Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane), his loyal concierge Charon (the late, great Lance Reddick), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) while making room for even more additions to the Wickverse. These include a High Table Marquis (played as a sadistic fop with wicked glee by Bill Skarsgård) determined to take Wick out for good and a collection of hit men and crime lords laser focused on kilingl him that includes Scott Adkins, Shamier Anderson, and Donnie Yen, the latter playing a blind master assassin compelled to hunt Wick in spite of their friendship.
The John Wick mythology remains a collection of clever nonsense that’s largely present to set up creative scenarios in which an outmanned and outgunned Wick (skillfully played by Reeves with feather-touch intensity, as usual) has to take out dozens of opponents at once, even if that sometimes means working his way through every corner of a building.
At nearly three hours, the film has plenty of room in which to work, but it only rarely feels like too much room. The film keeps getting more creative and visually striking as it goes along. A brutal, water-drenched fight scene in a Berlin club that might be another film’s climax here serves to set-up a final hour that forces Wick to carve a bloody path through Paris as he attempts to make his way to Sacré Coeur. (The tip of the cap to Walter Hill’s The Warriors in this stretch is just one of many knowing homages to other films.) What begins in motorized mayhem by the Arc de Triomphe gives way to one new flavor of action sequence after another. In 2014, John Wick felt like a corrective to the chopped-to-ribbons action movies that obscured the action and recycled tired ideas. Nearly a decade later, the series is still demonstrating how it ought to be done. — Keith Phipps
John Wick: Chapter 4 opens in theaters tonight.
Tori and Lokita
Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
For the great Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, poverty is about the confinements of space, with limited choices imposing narrow patterns of behavior. As the 17-year-old title character in their Palme D’Or-winning breakthrough film, 1999’s Rosetta, Émilie Dequenne seemed trapped in an invisible fence that extended between the dilapidated trailer she shares with her alcoholic mother and the manual labor jobs she desperately tries to land. Even the relatively privileged laborer played by Marion Cotillard in the Dardennes’ superb 2014 drama Two Days, One Night is forced to pinball around an industrial town in an effort to convince her co-workers to give up their bonuses to save her position. It feels suffocating to be in that space with them.
Yet there are limits, too, to the Dardennes’ approach. When you present humans as if they’re animals prowling restlessly within their enclosures, their lack of agency can also come across as psychologically reductive. Aren’t people defined by more than their circumstances? That’s the issue that creeps into the Dardennes’ latest film, Tori and Lokita, a compact and viscerally powerful drama that nonetheless feels too simple, like watching a butterfly get pulled apart by its wings. We can appreciate the cruelties visited upon these characters and the societal indifference that makes it possible, but the Dardennes haven’t imagined them as more than mere specimens.
Tori and Lokita opens with the excruciating spectacle of Lokita (Mbundu Joely), a 16-year-old Cameroonian in Belgium, trying and failing to lie her way through an interview with immigration authorities to obtain a work visa. The lie she’s trying to tell is that her best friend Tori (Pablo Schils) is actually her brother and that she found him, miraculously, at an orphanage. When that narrative fails, Lokita has to retreat to an impossible situation: She needs money for both the lowlifes that smuggled her into Belgium and her overburdened mother back home, but the only work she can get is with Betim (Alban Ukaj), a sleazy restaurant owner who runs a drug business out of his kitchen.
Betim understands Lokita’s plight and exploits it mercilessly, often paying her extra for sexual favors. As her desperation for money grows, Betim sets her up with a job in a secret facility where she has to tend to room after room of cannabis plants, with the condition that she must live in this noisy, airless space and cannot have a phone. She and Tori are clever in trying to improvise around this virtual enslavement, but the risks both of them take to survive and to be together put them in terrible danger.
It’s not hard to decipher what the Dardennes are saying about the immigration system in Belgium and the impact bureaucratic indifference can have on vulnerable children like Lokita and Tori. But the film feels too much like a blunt-force worst-case-scenario than Dardennes classics like L’Enfant or The Son, which don’t skimp on the emotional complexities of its characters, even when they’re under similar forms of duress. As always, they bring the physical details of their world to vivid life, like a cannabis facility that’s been designed like a jerry-rigged prison, unfit for any living thing that isn’t a plant. Yet they can’t quite understand Lokita and Tori as more than victims—pitiable, sympathetic, and even heartbreaking, but nonetheless grist for the mill. — Scott Tobias
Tori and Lokita opens in limited release tomorrow.
The Five Devils
Dir. Léa Mysius
Some movies ease audiences into their worlds. Others drop them in the deep end with their first image. The Five Devils falls into the second category, opening with a shot of teenage girls in tights and make-up for a gymnastic performance as they scream and cry outside a burning building. Then one, whom we’ll soon learn is named Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), looks behind her in search of an answer to how such a horrible sight could have been created, finding no clues.
The second feature from Léa Mysius (who’s collaborated as a screenwriter with Claire Denis, Jacques Audiard, and Arnaud Desplechin), The Five Devils isn’t in any hurry to provide answers, either. Instead it assembles a collection of suggestive elements and waits for them to gel. The fire, it’s soon revealed, took place ten years ago and had a profound effect both on Joanne and other residents of the small French Alps town where she now works as a swimming instructor. These include her husband Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), with whom she shares a marriage as chilly as the lake in which Joanne tests her endurance, and their young daughter Vicky (Sally Dramé), a withdrawn girl who quietly suffers the racist abuse of her schoolmates.
Vicky has other reasons for keeping to herself. She has an uncanny sense of smell that goes beyond being able to track her mother down in the wooded countryside while blindfolded. With the right mix of ingredients, she can mix concoctions whose scents allow her to travel back in time. Over the course of these travels, she learns about her parents’ past and why the arrival of Jimmy’s sister Julia (Swala Emati) has thrown their home into a state of upheaval.
Heavy on atmosphere and fluid camerawork, Myisus’ film creates a sense of unease to match Vicky’s incomplete understanding of the world in which she lives. Her gifts offer insights but the past she sees so radically rewrites the past as it’s been told to her that it knocks her off her balance. Dramé makes her a sympathetic but unnerving presence, and her flashbacks to a time before Vicky was born unmask some of the racism and homophobia her town usually keeps under the surface, if only barely. When the film finally reveals the source of the fire, it’s a bit anticlimactic but also largely beside the point. By then, the film’s evolved past its initial shock moment into a spooky time travel story in which the placid place Vicky calls home starts to feel like a haunted house writ large and those around her are ghosts of the people they used to be. —Keith Phipps
The Five Devils opens in limited release tomorrow.
I am still not over the fact that we live in a world where the third sequel to a 101 minute, reasonably lean action film is 169 minutes
I have no interest in John Wick, but I read your review anyway because of the quality of the writing, which was excellent as usual. I’m commenting here because the review is where I learned of the death of Lance Reddick. I’m sorry to hear it. He was awesome.