Two action icons and a pop star take ‘John Wick 4’ to new heights
No Hollywood franchise is doing ballistic, balletic, bone-crunching fight action better than the “John Wick” series — and in its newest installment, a murderer’s row of talent joins Keanu Reeves to take the hit-man saga to the next level.
Fleshing out the western- and jidaigeki-influenced underworld of “John Wick: Chapter 4” as the titular man in black ramps up the body count in his quest for vengeance, stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski tapped a bounty of top international action stars to complicate his antihero’s journey.
‘John Wick 4’s Chad Stahelski got his start in stunts with Keanu Reeves and ‘The Matrix.’ Now he’s one of Hollywood’s most exciting action filmmakers.
Many of the 169-minute sequel’s best sequences, however, belong to a trio of faces who are new to the franchise — some of whom could return to the ever-expanding Wick-verse.
Hiroyuki Sanada as Shimazu Koji
Japanese screen legend Hiroyuki Sanada was initially set to reunite with his “47 Ronin” co-star Reeves in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” but had to drop out due to a training injury. A few years later, Stahelski called about a new role that had been written just for him: Shimazu Koji, the principled owner of the Osaka Continental, who shares a deep and loyal brotherhood with John Wick.
“I said, ‘Oh my goodness — he gave me another chance,’” remembered Sanada. “I said, ‘Yeah, I will see you on set.’”
Sanada, 62, brings a soulful presence to Koji, the moral center of “Chapter 4,” who puts his life and his neon-soaked luxury hotel on the line to defy the cruel wrath of the High Table. “Chad asked me to carry the samurai spirit in Koji,” said Sanada — and because of that code, Koji can’t refuse helping his old pal.
He also poured his offscreen friendship with Reeves into their onscreen chemistry. “I love the scene on the rooftop where we’re drinking whiskey, talking to each other. It’s the only quiet scene in the movie,” he said. “It was like we were talking in real life. Sometimes I forgot the camera was there.”
Keanu Reeves returns as a reluctant assassin in the globe-trotting ‘John Wick: Chapter 4,’ the latest entry in director Chad Stahelski’s action franchise.
Tokyo-born Sanada, who began acting at the age of 5, developed a love for European and Hollywood movies — “musicals, action, fantasy, everything” — and studied dance, singing and martial arts before joining mentor Sonny Chiba’s famed Japan Action Club at 13.
Established as a film star in Japan and Hong Kong, he tested his skills by starring in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1999 production of “King Lear,” which he calls “the biggest challenge of my life.” “I learned how difficult mixing cultures is,” he said, “but to respect each other, learn about each other and create something new that no one’s ever seen is a very interesting thing.”
It also made him more determined to pursue international projects. Soon after, he landed his breakthrough role opposite Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai.” Since then, Sanada has appeared stateside in everything from “Rush Hour 3” to “Lost” to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’ll next star in and produce the FX miniseries “Shōgun,” based on the 1975 novel. “If I didn’t take a role in Shakespeare, I wouldn’t have a role in Hollywood,” he said.
Rina Sawayama as Akira
Pop singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama was looking forward to a rare bit of downtime after writing her second album when she got a call too intriguing to pass up: The director of the “John Wick” movies wanted to meet with her — and was she free for the next three months?
“If someone had said, ‘In a few years’ time you’re going to be crawling up this really big guy in a suit up the stairs at 3 a.m., pretending to stab him, ... ‘” she said with a laugh, flashing back to filming the scene-stealing fight in which her character, Akira, dagger-picks her way up a much larger adversary. “It’s such a surreal moment!”
Sawayama didn’t know it yet, but the years of hard work she’d put into her music career were about to open an unexpected door into acting.
Her family moved from Japan to England when she was 5, making for a tough transition into the British school system as a non-native English speaker. But in music, she found connection and self-expression. Working day jobs, she saved up to self-fund her career and didn’t sign her first album deal until 29. “I didn’t realize that I wanted to be an artist, writing my own music and turning my experiences and my life and my world into music, until I was in my late teens,” said Sawayama, 32.
Choosing the indie route gave her space to experiment with sounds from nu metal to New Jack Swing to U.K. garage and hone her talent for turning personal introspection into genre-defying dance-pop. When her 2020 debut album came out to acclaim, it announced the arrival of an audacious multihyphenate who also danced, acted in and co-directed her own music videos.
Fast-forward to “John Wick 4”: Stahelski was in prep in Berlin trying to cast the role of Akira, the cautious concierge of the Osaka Continental and daughter to Sanada’s Koji, when he fell down a rabbit hole of Sawayama’s work.
Music videos like “XS,” in which she plays a demented home shopping network host, and “Bad Friend,” which sees her playing an anguished salaryman, showed off a chameleonic presence and physicality. The director similarly cast Asia Kate Dillon in “Chapter 3” after watching them on an episode of “Billions.” He offered Sawayama the role, inviting her to tailor it to her instincts.
She took on months of training to prepare for her film debut, working with Reeves and Sanada. Even so, Stahelski was prepared to shoot around Sawayama’s abilities should complex action sequences be too tricky. He didn’t need to worry — within the first week she’d memorized a fight scene.
“From all the dance training and live shows, stress does not get to Rina,” Stahelski said, describing the training run that showed him what she could do. “She’s knocking out the bow and arrow, she’s doing a knee slide, she does two judo throws. I was like, ‘We’re good.’”
Sawayama makes an impressive debut as the lithe and lethal Akira is forced into action, but her performance also is grounded in conflicted emotion, torn between her father’s wishes and her worry for him as he helps John Wick. She was glad that Akira, one of the few female characters in the franchise, wasn’t sexualized but given her own perspective and agenda.
“It’s very clear to the audience whether she actually wants to be in this world or not. I can tell the story and I don’t have to worry about how I’m being portrayed, or how I’m portraying Asian people,” said Sawayama, who’s eager to reprise her role as Akira in the future. “I loved that. It wasn’t a stereotype. It was a real person. And I wouldn’t have said yes if it wasn’t.”
“John Wick 4‘s” not-so-secret weapon is the biggest action star to join the franchise: Hong Kong cinema icon Donnie Yen.
As the blind assassin Caine, another old friend and antagonist of Wick’s maybe-final chapter, he fills the screen with cool wit and lethal grace — a deadly Fred Astaire with a bladed walking stick who steals the movie each time he glides onscreen.
For lifelong martial-arts- and action-obsessive Stahelski, asking the “Ip Man” and “Once Upon a Time in China II” star to join the “John Wick” universe was intimidating. One of Asia’s most successful crossover stars, seen in “Rogue One” and “Mulan,” actor-producer-director Yen had turned down plenty of Hollywood roles before.
“I’m asking a bit of a life commitment, to put his life on hold for me, and it’s not a ‘Donnie Yen movie,’” said Stahelski. “We’ve invited him as a guest to our world. It was a bit daunting.”
Yen, 59, only agreed if he could reshape the role, which Stahelski admits had been written with “placeholder” details. “The name was Shang or Chang,” Yen told GQ. “Why can’t he have a normal name?” Stahelski appreciated the blunt honesty: “Donnie got the pages and said, ‘I don’t like the character. But I want to be in it. You want to work?’”
Yen found intriguing ways for his character to mirror Wick. “He said, ‘John Wick’s cool. I want to be cool. I want to make this something that you and I haven’t seen,’” said Stahelski. “He gave me a great education of what Chinese audiences like, or what the Asian community might prefer more than just a stereotypical kind of role.”
They arrived at a new name, Caine, with its layers of meaning: as a brother in arms to Wick’s Abel; as a nod to David Carradine’s “Kung Fu” wanderer — and reclamation of Bruce Lee’s reported exclusion from the role; and in the literal sense, the personification of his epee-like weapon of choice.
You’d think pretty much any actor alive who can do a halfway decent flying kick would jump at the chance to play a martial-arts-fighting, Force-sensitive monk in a “Star Wars” movie.
Yen sent the director an image of Bruce Lee in a skinny tie and suit, inspiring Caine’s sleek look. “We went off on this riff about Chow Yun-fat and how we both love John Woo and thought, ‘We’ve gotta be as cool as Chow Yun-fat,’” said Stahelski. “If John looks that cool, Caine’s got to look that cool.”
Yen, whose latest film as director and star, “Sakra,” is also due out this year, brought his own ideas to Caine’s fighting style, folding fencing into his action vocabulary. And for his most emotional scene, in which he duels with the wounded Koji, he and Sanada collaborated to create their own character-driven choreography. “We tried to let the audience see: What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Why do they have to fight?” said Sanada.
“That’s why I love the ‘John Wicks’ so much — it’s this nexus, this fantasyland, where you can have the legend of Hiroyuki Sanada, you can have the legend of Donnie Yen, and put them together to come up with something that hasn’t been done,” said Stahelski. “If 14-year-old me could see that, he’d be like, ‘Ahhhh!’”
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