The creatives behind the John Wick franchise must lose sleep at night thinking how they can outdo themselves with each new installment. If so, it makes a strong case for insomnia, since John Wick: Chapter 4 outdoes its formidable predecessors in nearly every respect.
Bigger, badder, bolder, longer, and featuring nearly more spectacular set pieces than one movie can comfortably handle, this epic action film practically redefines the stakes. If at times it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the excessive mayhem is coming dangerously close to overkill, that seems suitable for a film series featuring body counts higher than some wars.
John Wick: Chapter 4
The Bottom Line
As the title character says: “Yeah!”
“The bloodshed in Osaka was not necessary,” one character observes after a typically violent melee in a luxury hotel that leaves scores dead and the premises practically in ruins. “The bloodshed was the point,” says another. And so it is with this hugely successful series featuring Keanu Reeves as the former hitman who thought he was out, only to be pulled back in, after his beloved puppy was killed in the first film. The bloodshed is the point — or, more accurately, the amazingly choreographed and photographed action sequences that make particular use of the combination of martial arts and gunplay battling known as “gun-fu.” This edition ups the ante further, with an impressively executed car chase/gun battle through the streets of Paris — including around the Arc de Triomphe — that brings “car-fu” into the violent mix.
Things aren’t going too well for the titular character as the film begins, which for him is not unusual. The High Table, that international criminal organization that seems to run the world, is out for his blood. To that end, their representative, the Marquis (Bill Skarsgard, enjoyably playing a character only slightly less villainous than his Pennywise), puts a huge bounty on his head, attracting such freelance operatives as the Tracker (Shamier Anderson), who doesn’t go anywhere without his loyal, and very lethal, Belgian Malinois. The Marquis also hires the blind but no less dangerous Caine (Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen), a former friend of Wick’s who only accepts the assignment because the High Table will kill his daughter if he doesn’t.
Things aren’t going so well for Wick’s friends, either. Early in the proceedings, the High Table’s emissary, known as the Harbinger (Clancy Brown), shows up at the New York Continental Hotel, that comfortable downtown haven for assassins, and informs its owner Winston (Ian McShane, more delightfully droll than ever) and his faithful concierge (Lance Reddick) that the hotel will be demolished in one hour.
Newcomers to the series would do well to do some research beforehand, because as the above summary indicates, mythology is a strong element. It could be argued that, like so many franchises dealing with fantasy worlds, the creators have gotten carried away with their convoluted constructs. I won’t make that argument, since I consider the elaborate world the John Wick films have created, which looks so much like ours, to be one of its most delicious elements. But you couldn’t blame repeat viewers watching the film later on via streaming for fast-forwarding through the talky parts to get to the action.
To recount the highlights of those elaborately staged set pieces would take up too much space, because there are so damn many of them. (Fourteen in all, according to the filmmakers. I can’t vouch for accuracy, since I lost count.) Besides the aforementioned car chase and hotel battle featuring guns, swords, bows and arrows, and a large variety of improvised weapons (a Wick specialty), there’s an amazing fight scene set in a water-drenched, multi-level nightclub featuring hundreds of revelers who barely notice the face-off between Wick and the gold-toothed Killa. The latter is played by action movie star and former MMA fighter Scott Adkins, amusingly outfitted with prosthetics and a huge bodysuit that somehow doesn’t hamper his fighting skills.
Then the there’s the gun battle between Wick and hordes of deadly minions in a warren of rooms in an apartment building, filmed from high overhead with a floating camera that follows the continuous action as if it were observing a particularly violent ant colony. And another fight sequence that takes place on a massively steep staircase leading up to Sacré Coeur that is so ridiculously over-the-top — including Wick’s repeatedly falling down the length of them only to get back up and start all over again, like a black-suit-wearing Wile E. Coyote — that it elicited rapturous giggles from the audience at the press screening.
Director Chad Stahelski, who helmed all the previous films, and his formidable stunt team have outshone their previous work, and that’s saying something. These sequences play like the great dance numbers in old MGM musicals, complete with incredibly complicated, lengthy continuous shots that feature the full bodies of the performers rather than kinetically edited snippets of a gun here or a limb there. They’re so virtuosic you practically want to stand up and applaud when each one is over.
Unlike so many films set in exotic locales that deliver a few establishing shots of local landmarks before filming in nondescript spots somewhere in Canada, John Wick: Chapter Four uses its many locations in Paris and Berlin to fantastic effect. A particular hoot are the scenes involving the dandyishly dressed Marquis, who only seems to conduct his business in such venues as the Paris Opera House and the Louvre, both of which he seems to have at his personal disposal.
Reeves, at one point outfitted with a Kevlar suit and shirt that enables him to get shot seemingly thousands of times without getting hurt (he uses the lapel like Dracula’s cape), commits so thoroughly to the role’s insane physical demands that he should get an award, if not for acting, then merely surviving. But he plays Wick so perfectly that he manages to rouse the audience merely with a passionately expressed “Yeah!”
Reeves generously shares the spotlight with his co-stars, including Yen, who delivers such a physically witty and charismatic performance that you can’t wait for the inevitable spin-off, and Japanese star Horoyuki Sanada as Shimazu, the manager of the Osaka hotel who battles valiantly alongside Wick. Shimazu’s daughter, Akira (singer Rina Sawayama, making a strong screen debut), will undoubtedly be seen in future editions. And it wouldn’t be a John Wick film without the return of the Bowery King, played so authoritatively by Laurence Fishburne.
Running nearly three hours, John Wick: Chapter 4 can certainly be accused of being too long. But I doubt many fans will be complaining.