The landmark action franchise finds new ways to top itself, in a closing chapter as bombastic as it is bloody and balletic.
The John Wick films are, simply put, the standard-bearer for American action in the 21st century. When the first came out in 2014, it shook the foundations of what we felt was possible in a Hollywood action landscape predominantly concerned with CGI energy blasts: It put stuntwork front and center, crafted labyrinthine mythology as dense and unnecessary as it was innately compelling in its flavor, and — most importantly — brought Keanu Reeves back to the public consciousness in a big way. Basically, it’s some of the few times American action movies can even hope to compete with what comes out of Eastern Europe and Asia. And now, that saga comes to a close with John Wick: Chapter 4, a film that took two years after completion to come out, and feels like a final exhale of relief after hours of unrelenting, inventive action.
Like any Wick chapter worth its salt, Chapter 4‘s story is practically immaterial: worn-down assassin John Wick (Reeves) must dodge the many, many, many assassins who want the price on his head, and will mow through hundreds of them in various creative locations to do so. This time, though, there’s an air of finality to his dealings with the High Table. With the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui) gone, the Table is now led by effete French dandy the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård, his French accent often sounding more like Werner Herzog), who’s happy to sic any and everyone on Wick for his transgressions. That includes old friend Cain (Donnie Yen, playing his second blind warrior with a cane after Rogue One), whose lack of sight only makes him a more formidable fighter, Zatoichi-style.
He’s not the only person who will circle around Wick’s orbit this chapter, though he may be the most consequential. The cast is a bit bigger here, Wick now encircled by several newer leads who kick as much ass as he does (maybe to give poor Reeves’ knees a break over the film’s 169-minute runtime), flitting between both sides of his allegiance. The film’s first act sees him taking refuge in the Tokyo, Japan Continental — the Marquis demolishes the New York branch, tying Winston’s (Ian McShane) fate directly to John’s — where he gets some much-needed help from that hotel’s chairman (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his fierce concierge/daughter Akira (Rina Sawayama, a highlight of this early stretch).
There’s also another assassin who calls himself “Mr. Nobody” (Shamier Anderson), a skilled fighter who loves money almost as much as he loves his dog, a neat parallel to Mr. Wick’s puppy-loving past. He’ll fight for or against John depending on the scene, and the price tag the Marquis is willing to pay for his head, making him a delightful trump card anytime he pops up.
But as Wick runs from refuge to refuge, he realizes the only way he can end the cycle is by re-entering the Table and killing the Marquis once and for all. This quest sends him everywhere from Berlin to Paris on a wild goose chase filled with plenty of goons to shoot and bash and crash and slash.
And that he certainly does, director Chad Stahelski seemingly throwing every remaining idea for a Wick massacre into this one. It’s not long before you realize why Chapter 4 is a whopping three hours long: It feels like a trilogy of Wick movies rolled into one. Dialogue scenes exist purely to set the parameters for the next chase, the next fight, the next big city Wick will decimate. Action is this film’s method of communication, and Stahelski speaks it fluently.
Action is this film’s method of communication, and Stahelski speaks it fluently.
Stahelski’s choreography is always staggering, but the scope of the fights here — their inventiveness, their outright silliness — is practically jaw-dropping. John and Akira battle their way through armored High Table goons in Tokyo with nunchucks, broken glass, bows and arrows. In Berlin, he chases down a corpulent target (action legend Scott Adkins, in a Colin-Farrell-in-The-Batman level of prosthetics) in a neon-soaked nightclub so busy the partygoers hardly notice when gunshots are going off around them.
And there’s the final hour, a nonstop overnight race to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica to meet the terms of his ultimate battle, with a sea of baddies stopping him along the way. It’s a multi-stage sequence that blows your mind with each new turn, from a car chase zooming around the Arc de Triomphe to a top-down shootout with exploding “dragon’s breath” bullets, to an absurd climb up the 300 steps to Sacré-Cœur — and a fall back down, and a climb back up again.
It’s tempting to just chalk Chapter 4 up as an “action showcase” whose fights make up for perceived deficiencies in the script, the plot, in Reeves’ stoic performance. But it’s all part of the stew that makes these movies so fascinating. Where others might see thin plotting, I see mythic storytelling, Wick sitting somewhere between the grand tragedy of a Russian novel and the fateful samurai trying to do right before his time ends. Cynical minds might call Reeves flat; no, he’s perfect here, an engine of violence struggling to make do with what he’s become and what kind of legacy he’ll leave.
Dan Laustsen‘s cinematography soaks our besuited boy in the heat of Arabian deserts, in the rain-soaked darkness of a Berlin nightclub, the vengeful neon red of a Tokyo billboard. He’s not a man, he’s a symbol; a statue soaked in blood. He’s an avatar for Stahelski’s homages to classic cinema of the past, from a tribute to Lawrence of Arabia‘s match cut in the beginning to the close-up of a Black female DJ’s mouth ushering in our final chase, in a nod to Walter Hill’s The Warriors.
More than the visceral thrills of watching Keanu Reeves use gunshots like punches for hours on end, the Wick series feels like a nod to the cinema that came before it. The Hong Kong bullet operas, the samurai pictures, even the works of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. These are cinematically-literate works, which double nicely as excuses to hoot and holler in a crowded theater as John shakes off another three-story tumble off the roof of a building.
Chapter 4 feels like the culmination of this particular kind of cinematic churchgoing. Hopefully, we’ll get plenty more before the fad dies down and the public forgets about the integral work stunt performers do to give us the kind of thrills CG just can’t replicate.
If nothing else, Chapter 4 serves as a curiously apt tribute to the late Lance Reddick, whose Charon was the beating heart of this series. His role here portends John’s own journey, as these men of violence struggle to carve out a legacy so drowned in blood.
John Wick Chapter 4 closes out its contract in theaters March 24th.