Warning: This post contains spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 4
Yeah… we’re thinking he’s dead. At the end of John Wick: Chapter 4, Keanu Reeves’s weary assassin lays down his guns at last, succumbing to wounds sustained during his climactic duel with High Table marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård). The final shot of the film — which scored a franchise-best opening weekend gross — lays him to rest alongside his dearly departed wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). Both Reeves and Wick franchise architect, Chad Stahelski, have already said that ending should be taken literally, not metaphorically, and Chapter 4‘s editor, Nathan Orloff, backs up those sentiments in an interview with Yahoo Entertainment.
“Both Chad and Keanu wanted to do an epic samurai Western as a closing statement,” the 35-year-old editor confirms, adding that he knew the film would end with the death of John Wick when he first signed on. “It was a little daunting to know that at first, but my favorite scene in the movie is the one where John and the Bowery King [played by Laurence Fishburne] talk about his epitaph, “Loving husband.” That’s so Clint Eastwood: this simple line with an ocean of emotion under it. And Keanu carries that off.”
Orloff is actually a new addition to the John Wick team: Both of the previous sequels were edited by Evan Schiff, but Stahelski made the potentially risky decision to switch it up for the final chapter, recruiting a fresh voice who had limited experience in the action realm. “He didn’t want someone to come in and put their own stamp on a John Wick movie,” Orloff recalls of his initial conversations with the director. “He wanted someone who would organically find the movie he shot. I found his influences endlessly fascinating and unexpected, and approached this from the perspective of just making a good movie as opposed to having a big background in action.”
Besides being relatively new to action movies, Orloff’s identity as an openly gay editor also ensured that he’d bring a novel perspective to a franchise — and a genre — that’s frequently thought of as being a festival of machismo. “I find it funny that one of the most masculine and violent action movies to come out in years was created by a very queer cutting room,” he says, laughing. “I’m gay, my first assistant editor is gay, and my second assistant’s a woman. I was nervous coming into this that Chad might be this super macho guy who’d be uncomfortable with emotion, but that actually says a lot about me in terms of my prejudices. Chad’s a film nerd that loves jiu-jitsu, and he’s also a beautiful human being.”
While it goes without saying that John Wick: Chapter 4 would never be confused with Brokeback Mountain, Orloff is very comfortable describing it as a “bromance” that makes explicit the emotional bonds that exists between the different members of its largely male cast. And as John Wick approaches the end of his life, love is what ultimately drives him forward to his final resting place, as opposed to rage or fury.
That tracks with the interests of contemporary action stars like Adam Driver, who are making a conscious break with the musclebound meatheads that defined the Stallone and Schwarzenegger era in the ’80s. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment recently for his prehistoric action movie, 65, Driver said he was attracted to the role because the “character’s anger and aggression is coming from a place of real pain,” and also noted that his time in the Marines taught him that “even the toughest guy can be emotionally available.”
“I hope we’re headed towards action heroes who are more in touch with their emotions and what they believe in, and are able to communicate that,” Orloff says, pointing to Chapter 4‘s early scenes between John and his old friend, Shimazu Koji (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), as an example of what’s possible in modern-day action movies. “You feel this deep bond between the two of them, and that makes what happens to Koji all the more painful. Action heroes who can feel, and who can grieve their fellow action heroes is where I’d love to see the genre go.”
One thing’s for sure: John Wick: Chapter 4 isn’t going anywhere from multiplexes — or the box office charts — for a good long while. In a wide-ranging interview, Orloff shared some secrets about how the film came together in the editing room, from the real story behind those reports of a 225-minute cut to the stealth Matrix Reloaded homage that everyone on Twitter is talking about.
How do you measure a movie?
At 169 minutes — 160 minutes worth of movie, and nine minutes of closing credits — the fourth John Wick picture is already an extra-long final chapter. But ahead of the film’s release, Stahelski generated headlines when he told Indiewire that his first cut clocked in at a whopping 225 minutes, not including closing credits. Orloff confirms that epic runtime, but says that version of the film would never have played in theaters. “That was the assembly cut,” he says, referring to what’s essentially the filmmaking equivalent of the rough draft of a novel. “It was every single thing that was shot, including when people were just walking inside a room, stopping to talk and then exiting. I’m sure the assembly cut for Avatar: The Way of Water was seven hours long!”
With those more extraneous moments either excised or tightened up, Orloff says that the actual director’s cut that Stahelski turned into Lionsgate topped out at 190 minutes — again, minus credits — which the director and the studio still felt was just a little too long. “We got it down to about 175 minutes, which seemed pretty reasonable,” he recalls of the version that directly preceded the theatrical cut. “It’s always easy to cut the first 20 minutes from an assembly cut, but after that it gets harder and harder. Cutting those last 15 minutes from the 175-minute cut was very difficult.”
While a long runtime certainly didn’t hurt Chapter 4 at the box office, some critics — and even a portion of the movie’s champions — have questioned whether it really needed every one of those 160 minutes. Orloff reveals that he and his team did create several shorter cuts of Chapter 4, but they found that those versions actually felt longer. “We chopped scenes up in pursuit of the macro goal of a shorter runtime, but they weren’t as good,” he recalls of those abandoned cuts. “It was more obvious what we were leaving out.”
Eventually, Orloff found that condensing certain sequences — like a mid-movie montage where Wick arrives in Berlin — and avoiding repetition of ideas and plot points within scenes was enough to get Chapter 4 down to the 160-minute cut that’s playing in theaters. “Watching it now, I don’t know what else I would cut,” he admits with a laugh. “The story would stop making sense and certain scenes would not be as good as they are.”
John Wick Reloaded
Twenty years ago, Lana and Lili Wachowski threw an epic underground rave in The Matrix Reloaded that remains one of the most talked about scenes in that franchise… both pro and con. (For the record, we’re pro all the way.) Obviously Reeves was intimately involved in The Matrix sequels, but not everyone remembers that Stahelski is a key part of the franchise as well, serving as Neo’s stunt double on the 1999 original and stunt coordinator on 2003’s Reloaded and Revolutions.
“Chad told me that he injured his arm during the sequels, and to keep him on the payroll, the Wachowskis put him in the editorial department for awhile,” Orloff says. “That’s where he learned all about post-production: everything he knows about how to edit around stunts comes from that period.”
Stahelski pays his mentors back in a major Chapter 4 sequence where John pays a visit to a Berlin nightclub presided over by High Table assassin, Killa — played by martial arts veteran, Scott Adkins. Their brawl spills out onto the dance floor where Matrix-esque ravers continue to boogie to techno beats even as Wick and Killa trade body blows. The hilarious incongruity between the dancers and the fighters hasn’t gone unnoticed on social media.
“Not a lot of movies have that audacious a club scene,” Orloff says, laughing. “Usually you’re in the club for three seconds and then you find a backroom where it’s easier to shoot action. But here, we’re in the middle of the crowd and having them fight around tons of people who are dancing. To Chad’s credit, he was just like, ‘Let’s go do it!’”
Orloff also agrees that the Reloaded connection isn’t coincidental. “It’s very much like the Zion rave,” he says of Chapter 4‘s club scene, pointing to its use of slow motion as well as the dancers’ moves and the heavy techno beats. “I didn’t intend to use that much slow motion because the other Wick films haven’t, but I was having fun with it and when I showed it to Chad, he was like, ‘It’s really cool!’”
Don’t bring out the big guns
From Commando to Rambo, the ’80s action aesthetic was defined by dudes with big guns firing even bigger guns. At the time, those movies represented the apex of masculinity for macho moviegoers — it’s only now in hindsight that the homoeroticism and pervasive phallic imagery seems impossible to miss. “Those films are chock full of directors, editors and cinematographers expressing their sexuality in ways they were never able to outside of filmmaking,” Orloff says. “It’s an era of films that worshipped buff men doing really intense things. It’s very funny to me now.”
Born in 1988, Orloff started watching action movies in the ’90s when blockbusters like Jurassic Park showed that action heroes could look like Sam Neill instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose own 1993 action opus, Last Action Hero, was famously devoured at the box office by Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs. And Reeves himself was part of that shift away from the bodybuilder type of action star: While the actor buffed up for his star turn in 1994’s Speed, he cut a more slender figure in The Matrix five years later. And throughout his tenure as John Wick, the now 58-year-old Reeves has consistently avoided packing on the kind of muscle that fellow quinquagenarians like Hugh Jackman and Dwayne Johnson display in their action movies.
“Keanu doesn’t show his body, and he’s not shown as buff,” Orloff agrees, noting that Wick’s fine suits are what make the man. “His bulletproof suit is the iconic thing about his character, and also how exhausted he is. I really leaned into that on this movie, showing him out of breath and on the verge of collapse. He’s always getting away by the skin of his teeth.”
And unlike the action heroes of yesteryear, Wick doesn’t rely on giant guns to aid with his narrow escapes. For the entirety of Chapter 4, his firearm of choice is a pistol. “The way John Wick uses a gun in these movies is just dialogue in terms of how we maneuvers himself,” Orloff explains. “He doesn’t plant himself in one place and go ‘boom boom boom.’ When waves of bad guys are coming at him, he does something unexpected to throw them off and I edit around that to highlight it. I’m never enhancing it with a cut: I’m just showing Keanu doing Keanu.”
A different kind of villain
Along with ultra-buff heroes, ’80s action movies were also chockablock with effeminate villains — a tradition that continued into the ’90s movies that Orloff remembers watching as a kid. “I grew up watching a lot of those portrayals, even with Disney villains,” he says. “It’s hard, because a lot of those characters I grew up loving, so I feel conflicted about it. Queer-coded villains are obviously not appropriate if that’s the only representation we get. But it’s also something that I think has changed a lot over time.”
Chapter 4 subtly acknowledges that legacy via its central villain, Vincent. As filmed by Stahelski and played by Skarsgård, the marquis is an eminently fashionable man who enjoys the finer things in life — good food, beautiful art and lush surroundings. He’s also something of a coward, notably declining to face Wick directly in their duel. Instead, he nominates another one of John’s old friends, Caine (Donnie Yen), to be his second and only steps in when it’s clear he’ll be the one firing the kill shot. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way — Wick outsmarts Vincent and waits to fire his return volley until his nemesis is directly in front of him.
Orloff acknowledges that there are aspects of Vincent’s character that can be read as queer-coded. And he says that one scene in particular went through several passes in the editing room out of a concern that it made his sexuality too overt. “There’s a moment in the stables between the Marquis and the Tracker [played by Shamier Anderson] where they have this face-off because they’re disagreeing about money,” he recalls. “There’s this distinct power dynamic at play, and I was very conscious about not wanting people to literally think that these guys are into each other. But they do get really close to one another in that scene, and I would always joke that there was a little bit of ‘gay chicken’ going on. It’s uncomfortable in a way, but it’s also appropriate for the story and for the characters.”
Orloff credits Skarsgård for keeping Vincent’s characterization fluid so that he didn’t fall into the “gay villain” trap. “He was always doing something interesting before action and after cut, and I used a lot of that,” he says. “He would be doing these subtle things — licking his lips or doing a slight smile or a slight frown. In editing his performance, I tried to create this idea that there’s a facade that he’s keeping up, and underneath all that Vincent is just insecure as f**k. He’s not really himself: he just has the arrogance and the audacity to think he can take on John Wick.”
Singin’ in the streets
When Orloff boarded John Wick: Chapter 4, Stahelski shared a long list of the classic cinematic influences that would be part of John Wick’s grand farewell: Buster Keaton, Barry Lyndon and spaghetti Westerns to name a few. But it’s hard to think of a better old school action hero to emulate than Gene Kelly, whose song-and-dance numbers in movies like Singin’ in the Rain remain incredible showcases of pure athleticism.
“I had never seen Singin’ in the Rain, and Chad told me to watch it before coming to Berlin,” Orloff remembers. “I watched it on the flight over and was taken aback by the style of the editing around the dancing. It shows off just how good the dancers are: there’s never any cutting for emphasis, they just do a bunch of dance movies, cut, and then start another set of dance moves. That was a huge influence for me on this, because all the action is just dancing. It’s just dancing with guns!”
Orloff points to the movie’s climax on the streets (and staircases) of Paris as a prime example of how Singin’ in the Rain directly influenced John Wick’s fighting style. “We have this 45-minute long finale that’s basically a series of different musical numbers,” he says, calling attention to the scene at the Arc de Triomphe where John battles waves of bad guys while also literally dancing around passing cars. But some moves had to be sacrificed in order to make the whole sequence flow.
“There’s a few shots at the roundabout that got trimmed,” Orloff explains. “There was another car that hit John, and also one where a stuntman named Anthony got thrown into a car, and his leg actually broke the headlight! For the longest time we wanted to use it, but it just wouldn’t fit and we were slowing the scene down to include something that no one is actually gonna notice.”
John Wick: Chapter 4 is playing in theaters now