Review: “John Wick: Chapter 4”

In the opening minutes of John Wick: Chapter 4, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) are seen in an underground lair, preparing their revenge against the High Table, the powerful league of hit men that screwed them both over. And as the final shot of 2019’s John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum implied, they weren’t about to take it anymore. The Bowery King strikes a match, blows it out, and then editor Nathan Orloff immediately cuts to the sun shimmering over the Moroccan desert. It’s an obvious reference that virtually any cinephile will recognize, lifted directly from the 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia and one of the most famous jump cuts of all time. John Wick: Chapter 4 and, in fact, most of its predecessors, is constructed around so many such unsubtle references, from its martial arts choreography to a High Noon-esque western stand-off, but it’s pulled off with such skill and panache, the result is a visionary epic, a tonic to the bland action movies that so often dominate movie screens these days, a film that will make any fan of action films giddy—even as those same elements will likely alienate those who aren’t.

Chad Stahelski is back on board as director, with a pair of new writers (Shay Hatten and Michael Finch) continuing Wick’s quest for vengeance against and freedom from the High Table. When his trip to Morocco ends in Wick murdering the High Table’s Elder, a senior member of the Table, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (a perfectly sniveling Bill Skarsgård) informs Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the New York Continental Hotel and Wick’s ally, that he has been given unlimited resources to find and kill John Wick. This includes enlisting the services of Caine (Donnie Yen), an old friend of Wick’s and a blind assassin retired from the High Table, by threatening his daughter’s life. Winston suggests to Wick that he challenge de Gramont to a duel; if he wins, he would also win his freedom from the Table. But in order to make that happen, there are some High Table rules and regulations Wick has to navigate first.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick in “John Wick: Chapter 4”

John Wick: Chapter 4 is perhaps the most stripped-back nearly three-hour movie you’ll ever see. For all its bloated runtime, the series’ fourth installment in many ways gets back to basics, pulling back on the elaborate world-building that occurred over the course of the second and third films and leaning more into a narrative akin to the agile, single-minded revenge tale that kickstarted the franchise. Chapter 4 still adds a lot of new blood to the mix, but their roles are clear, from de Gramont to noble Osaka Continental manager Shimazu Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada) to a bounty hunter known only as the Tracker (Shamier Anderson), who is continually driving up the price on Wick’s head and wanders the world with his dog at his side in a way that recalls a slightly younger Wick. Reeves has by now long since nicely settled into this role, his flinty gaze and impeccably tailored Kevlar suits at this point a uniform as recognizable as any comic book superhero, although here it seems like there’s an additional layer of weariness to his performance, one that befits his age and experience (and the number of times Wick gets thrown down stairs or hit by a car in this movie). Yen is mesmerizing to watch, with his fluid movements and his ideology that shares a lot in common with Wick’s. Their friendship/rivalry is built on a mutual respect whose power transcends all the noise and conflicting loyalties surrounding them. Fishburne continues to seem like he’s having the time of his life, the recently departed Lance Reddick reprises his role as Winston’s concierge and his poise stands out even in the tiniest amount of screen time, small supporting roles by the likes of Clancy Brown add additional color to the proceedings, and musician Rina Sawayama in her first film role as Koji’s daughter Akira fills her brief screen time with grace, strength, and intense emotion of the sort that promises a great future both for her and her character. The lengthy pauses in the action allow for moments of introspection that allow those scenes to resonate deeper. While Wick’s devotion to his deceased wife has been a through-line in all the films and is present here, particularly in a moving scene between him and Caine in a church toward the end of the movie, Chapter 4 especially revolves around father/daughter relationships. Whether we see the dynamic between the characters play out on screen, as it does between Koji and Akira, or not, as between Caine and his daughter, or Katia (Natalia Tena), who tasks Wick to kill the man who murdered her father as his way back into the crime syndicate so he can request the duel, that specific sort of familial devotion is integral to how events unfold over the course of the story.

Rina Sawayama as Akira in “John Wick: Chapter 4”

But of course, most audiences flock to these movies for their kinetic, elaborately-staged action scenes, and on that front Chapter 4 delivers in spades. Frequently bathed in vibrant neon lights or the unreal orange glow of a sunrise, characters move through the scenes with a balletic grace, whether they are fighting with guns or fists or swords or bows and arrows or a mash up of all of that. Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Lausten focus on the physicality of the actors within the frame even when they are working in crowded set-pieces, like a pulsing nightclub, Wick navigating multiple levels of grinding bodies and waterfall walls while pursuing his target, or a shootout at Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, the traffic never stopping as it whirls in circles around Wick and the hit men trying to kill him. The filmmakers also move the camera around in ways that make the action that much more inventive. The highlight of the movie is a shootout in a building in which the camera moves from the ground into an aerial POV, following Wick from above as he moves from room-to-room and decimates everyone in his path. Chapter 4 likely would have been a more effective and tighter film had the pace of some of these action scenes been better controlled. With the exception of a climatic staircase battle, where the length of scene is imperative to illustrating the height Wick has to reach by a certain time and his cringe-inducing near-failure, many of them start to feel repetitive, like a good thirty-seconds to a minute could have been cut from them. But the sequences are so impressive, it’s difficult to fault the film just for that. The exciting, globe-trotting action to characters that border on caricature to weird little details about this assassin network (the return of the tattooed telephone operators, the introduction of a DJ situated in the Eiffel Tower) likely won’t draw in those who haven’t already decided that these movies are for them (just about all of those things in this installment are dialed up to 11). But for those who love its maximalist approach, it’s nearly impossible not to walk out of John Wick: Chapter 4 clamoring for more—even if its final act serves as a fitting farewell to Mr. Wick should those involved choose to conclude the series here. I have a feeling the hero who just doesn’t stop is something else the John Wick series will borrow from other movies.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 169 minutes. Rated R.

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