I honestly have nothing but praise for how director Chad Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves have managed to take a little but effective action film and turn it into a full-blown franchise. It’s not as though the character of John Wick has evolved much or the roots of this series have been forgotten. John Wick: Chapter 4 may be a 169-minute action epic, but it absolutely still fits alongside the first entry’s much lower profile, which involved a man getting revenge for the death of his puppy by murdering dozens of people. Yes, that sort of silliness has remained intact, while this film series has managed to flesh out all of the details of this assassin world. For this installment, whether it was the time taken to truly figure out how to elevate things to the next level or just some sort of cinematic magic trick, John Wick is not only back, he’s better than ever in one of the best modern American action films this side of a Mission: Impossible.
It would be ridiculous to say the plot is inconsequential, as I like the attention paid to making everything fit together. Even while characters speak in cryptic phrases or pontificate with an extra layer of regal authority to make it sound like things are important, there is an investment to make regarding what’s actually happening. With that said, this still falls far more in line with what the original Star Wars films (or, more fittingly, Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy) were going for, as the viewer is thrown right into a pulpy world that may or may not make complete sense, but doesn’t take long to settle into its rhythm.
Essentially, John Wick (Reeves) has complicated things for the secret High Table that runs this assassin world through carefully laid out rules. The Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård, relishing another villainous opportunity) is a High Table member trying to extinguish everything connected to Wick to send a message. However, if John’s going to fight back in a way that leaves a lasting impact, it will mean taking on yet another impossible challenge. This will involve killing many (many) people with guns, swords, and whatever else may come in handy.
The action in this film is incredible. That should not be a surprise at this point, as the series has banked on how much more effective its action scenes are, thanks to the presence of former stunt performers taking on directorial duties. It’s resulted in much clearer fights, where all the carefully choreographed action is presented in much more satisfying ways compared to most of the action films (with much bigger budgets) arriving today. And yet, I still can’t say enough about how great the action is in this movie. Given the runtime, there’s undoubtedly a lot of it. Still, between the range of action we see, the creativity of the various settings and set pieces, and the way Reeves acts all through it, it’s a true wonder to behold.
An early sequence finds John joined by many members of a Continental hotel in Japan, relying on swords and arrows to get the job done. Nunchucks come into play during this extended fight, and it’s the most impressive use of them I’ve seen since Bruce Lee in Game of Death. Another action scene finds Wick facing off against English martial artist Scott Adkins (in a heavy bodysuit and makeup), and it turns into a wild brawl, complete with intense elevation changes in a water-themed nightclub. To go even further would be ruining some of the fun, but the eventual use of Paris as a major location allows for sequences that will be remembered by action fans for years to come.
Through all of this, another thing is also very clear – this movie is gorgeous. It’s a symphony of violence, wonderfully captured by cinematographer Dan Lausten. In fact, every shot of this film has something going on. Not in an overly flashy way but in terms of using the means available to make every frame look at least interesting. At a time when $200 million blockbusters purposely take on the muddiest looking palette possible to convey “out of this world,” John Wick 4 is here with all the colors, lighting schemes, and angles to produce a film that makes both the fight scenes as well as the dialogue scenes look terrific. Just the act of seeing Ian McShane’s Winston, manager of the New York Continental Hotel, walk through a Parisian museum, matched against enormous canvases, is far more compelling than seeing one muddy CG army collide with another…again.
It’s not even as though John Wick is trying to match up to some prestige-level calling card. No, this is a nutso film packed with over-the-top characters, on-the-nose line readings, and skewed levels of plausibility that rival the Fast & Furious franchise. However, once again, this series stays true to itself. Focusing on how much damage John would truly sustain were he to actually fall from various great heights or get hit by so many cars (let alone bullet hits to his Kevlar-laced suit) matters little in the world of John Wick. Instead, there’s a much larger focus on the dark humor that accompanies the rampant amount of R-rated violence that’s so persistent in this series, along with the moments spent focusing on the inherent sense of gravitas that the many great actors present bring to this film.
In that regard, Reeves is once again right on the money here. I’d still say Neo is his most compelling and fully-realized characterization in a major franchise, but John Wick easily hones both his physicality and what he can convey through his stoicism and dry wit. With that in mind, there’s a lot of great support here. Most notably, Donnie Yen enters the proceedings and did not just sign up for a quick cameo. As a blind assassin hired on (under duress) to hunt down his old friend, John Wick, we get plenty of great scenes that simply involve him having one on one conversations about life (all before getting the pleasure of watching Yen be amazing in action, a standard for him).
Other welcome cast members include the aforementioned McShane and Skarsgård, along with the continued presence of Lance Reddick and Laurence Fishburne (his best appearance yet in this series), acting as some of a few strong throughlines that help hold this universe of assassins together. Welcome additions include the towering Clancy Brown as an officiator known as The Harbinger and the very respectable Hiroyuki Sanada as the Osaka Continental’s manager. Having this film use its breathing room to let good actors speak in platitudes that lean either ominous or meaningful helps keep the seriousness of what’s happening in perspective. And this is after John Wick takes on multiple foes while on horseback or Donnie Yen slaps the hell out of three mercenaries at once with his bladed cane.
Shamier Anderson is among the more interesting new cast members as well. He plays a tracker with a well-trained dog (this series loves its dogs). He’s one who certainly has skills rivaling his best opponents. The way this film construes scenarios for him, Wick, and Yen’s Caine to exist in the same space, with the looming threat of violence always on the table, allows for further understanding of just how properly focused this feature is in best utilizing all it has to work with. And that’s what so much of my praise for this film comes down to. It can introduce new opponents, such as Anderson’s Tracker, while keeping up with Wick, and balancing a variety of different action scenarios simultaneously.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is a triumph for an action franchise in nearly every conceivable way. It’s taken its story to new depths, expanding in the right ways and never being less than compelling. For such a long feature, it never becomes tiresome or overwrought. Plus, without overdoing it, Stahelski takes the opportunity to pay homage to some of his (and my) favorite features. If anything, John Wick feels it’s earned the right to measure itself against some of the best, fitting in with the likes of Leone, Walter Hill, John Woo, and George Miller, among others. And even if that sounds like too high of praise, just remember – have fun out there; this is a loaded film with plenty to offer.