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How Visuals Let Keanu Reeves Say Only 380 Words in 'John Wick Chapter 4'

John Wick is a man of few words thanks to incredible cinematography and visual storytelling.
by Alyssa Miller on April 5, 2023

Movie lovers and screenwriters alike all know how essential dialogue is to a film. Dialogue serves multiple purposes like advancing the plot, revealing character, conveying themes and creating a tone that serves the story’s atmosphere. Without dialogue, films would be less engaging and memorable… or so we think. Some films however don’t need dialogue to serve a film's story or reveal a character. Keanu Reeves knows this, which is why he decided to work with John Wick: Chapter 4 screenwriters, Shay Hatten and Michael Finch, to cut down John Wick’s dialogue to 380 words. 

That is a surprisingly low amount of words, but there are some films that have the main character remain silent throughout the film like Gordon/"Silence" (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in The Great Silence (1969) and Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeacne (2002). 

Wick is known as a character of few words, but why does it work for his character? Let’s get into it. 

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John Wick: A Man of Few Words

John Wick is a character who, despite having few words, has an abundance of talent and assassin skills to showcase on screen. According to the Wall Street Journal, in the first installment of the John Wick franchise, Reeves speaks only 484 words over a 101-minute runtime. This trend continues in subsequent films, with Wick delivering only 380 lines over a 168-minute runtime in John Wick: Chapter 4, and many of those lines being featured in the movie’s trailer. In fact, Reeves’ longest-running line in the upcoming installment is a mere twelve words.

This limited dialogue has a purpose. Throughout the franchise, Wick has evolved into a symbol of death driven by revenge for the loss of his wife and dog, Daisy. He is feared and respected as the boogeyman of the underground world of assassins, and no words from anyone, including himself, will dissuade him from his quest for vengeance.

Despite his fearsome reputation, little is known about Wick, adding to his mysterious and enigmatic nature. His quiet demeanor and lack of words serve to enhance this mystique, making him seem more unpredictable and tactical. 

The result is a character that is not only deadly but also intriguing as the audience waits to see what he will do to get out of almost any perilous situation.

Read More: 10 Things to Delete From Your Dialogue Scenes Right Now

How Visuals Let Keanu Reeves Say Only 380 Words in 'John Wick Chapter 4'_keanu reeves

Keanu Reeves in 'John Wick Chapter 4'

How Visuals and Sound Design Allow John Wick to Say Less

John Wick transformed how Hollywood approaches the action genre. With neo-noirs and genre-bending becoming a staple in cinema, the John Wick films adopted the Hong Kong-inspired genre of gun-fu, a style of action that merges martial arts with gunplay. This innovative approach to action choreography gave screenwriters the ability to convey character development through the fighting style of the characters and highly stylized visuals.

As Wick fluidly shifts between hand-to-hand combat and firearms, we can see the intelligence and strategic thinking of the character through Reeves’ on-screen performance, camera angles, and camera movement. Wick doesn't need to use words to intimidate his opponents. Instead, Wick is framed in camera and the story as someone whose actions will speak for themselves. 

Read More: The Difference Between Necessary and Unnecessary Dialogue in Screenplays

Editing Style

The Kuleshov effect — a film editing style that employs the theory that two shots in a sequence create more of a psychological effect than one — is often used in the edit to convey precisely what John Wick is thinking without slowing down the pace of a fight sequence. This character-building approach relies on subtle visual cues and doesn't require dialogue. It's used effectively throughout John Wick: Chapter 4, like when Wick is looking for a weapon to fight Caine in Osaka or when Wick is trying to outmaneuver the many other assassins after him in Paris.

There are also scenes during action sequences that are long-form, long takes designed to look like a single shot. These long takes establish the size and magnitude of the threat to Wick before Wick can see it. In one scene near the end of John Wick: Chapter 4, director Chad Stahelski navigates a shoot-out in an abandoned Parisian building by following Wick with an overhead long take. It might be the coolest shot of the film, but it also showcases how Wick’s character has the ability to assess a threat, adapt to any given space, and become an overtaking threat that is so terrifying that the camera has to get out of his way. 

This video essay by Thomas Flight explains in more detail how the film's editor Evan Schiff broke action genre norms when cutting together the third installment of John Wick.

Shot Design

The cinematography of each shot allows John Wick to exist within the space without saying a word. The use of desaturated blues, reds, greens, and gold reflects John Wick's mental state and reinforces the stylized neo-noir tone of the story.

On the technical side, cinematographer Dan Lausten, who shot the last three films of the franchise, decided to switch from shooting on an Arri Alexa SXT Plus to an Arri Alexa LF — the LF standing for "large format." So, what? How does that affect the image and how does it change the visual storytelling?

I'm glad you asked.

Without going too much into detail about camera sensors and lenses, a camera that has a larger sensor can shoot more pixels, and lenses designed to shoot large format can capture more of a frame. In more technical terms, your angle of view is higher and your camera can capture larger images without losing resolution. This means that, say... highly choreographed and complicated fight scenes like the ones in John Wick Chapter 4 can be captured in a single frame. You get all the action in a single shot!

Check out this awesome breakdown from Frame Voyager that explains how something like camera choice changed so much about the visual storytelling of John Wick Chapter 4.

Sound Design

The sound design is another technique that adds to the visual language. The sound of a gun being cocked adds tension to a scene that words can't convey. Even in moments of silence, John Wick's lack of dialogue creates an atmosphere of danger as he navigates a world that is brutal and unforgiving.

John Wick's scarcity of dialogue in the franchise is meaningful. It reflects his personality and emphasizes the visual and auditory language of the film. His silence is a deliberate choice that adds to his mystique and intrigue. 

If you're writing a neo-noir story, it can be challenging not to overwrite your stoic character’s dialogue. I get that you want your main character to be at the top of the call sheet. But sometimes, trust that less is more, especially in action-packed films. Challenge yourself to communicate what needs to be said through actions, sound design, and location descriptions can lead to a more compelling and immersive story.

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