THE STORY – With the price on his head ever increasing, legendary hit man John Wick takes his fight against the High Table global as he seeks out the most powerful players in the underworld, from New York to Paris to Japan to Berlin.
THE CAST – Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård, Laurence Fishburne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shamier Anderson, Lance Reddick, Rina Sawayama, Scott Adkins, Clancy Brown, Natalia Tena, Marko Zaror & Ian McShane
THE TEAM – Chad Stahelski (Director), Shay Hatten & Michael Finch (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 169 Minutes
The “John Wick” series has gotten a lot of mileage out of its once simple premise, deepening the lore of its underworld of assassins and crime bosses and making it more interesting with each successive film. When you think you’ve seen it all, the series manages to go deeper and top itself in concept and execution. In “John Wick: Chapter 4,” the latest in the series, new franchise screenwriters Shay Hatten and Michael Finch up the ante, coming up with a plot that unveils a new corner of the series’s world, with new characters, new rituals, and more fabulous locations for John Wick to increase his already high body count.
Continuing where “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” left off, John is still on the run from the High Table, searching for a way out that will hopefully lead to peace for himself. Their latest representative, the Marquis de Gramont (played by a wicked Bill Skarsgard with a conniving French accent), ups the bounty on John Wick’s life and is hunting him down across the globe. He elicits the help of a blind but deadly legendary assassin named Caine (Donnie Yen) to put an end to John Wick’s life by holding Caine’s daughter’s life hostage despite the bond the two assassins once shared with one another. But in case that fails, he also brings in the Tracker (Shamier Anderson), or “Mr. Nobody,” as the Marquis refers to him, to track down John before he figures out a way to rid himself of the High Table. The Marquis makes his presence known early on as a formidable foe for John to face, as the endless resources of the High Table are at his disposal. But John still has friends he trusts all over the globe who are willing to lay their lives down for him based on their history and code of ethics, leading John to question if all of this defiance toward the High Table is worth it anymore. Would a good death be more acceptable?
In an action-packed shoot ’em up like the “John Wick” films, one doesn’t exactly need strong acting, but the series has it anyway. Keanu Reeves continues his action-hero dominance with another incredibly physical, supernaturally charismatic performance that pushes the boundaries of what any actor should be willing to put themselves through but Keanu seems to take great pleasure in with tremendous skill. Bill Skarsgard drips with proper French smarminess as the main antagonist, and his battles of wits with Ian McShane’s Continental Hotel Manager are delicious to watch. Donnie Yen has both the charisma and the action bona fides to go toe-to-toe with Reeves, making for a fantastic foil who adds true gravitas to the film’s story. Scott Adkins shows up for a memorable scene, wearing a fat suit, golden teeth and practically winking at the camera with a deliriously cartoonish but intimidating performance as a crime boss who gets in John’s way. And Rina Sawayama is an absolute firecracker in her film debut, effortlessly commanding the screen, especially in her scenes with the impressive Hiroyuki Sanada.
But the real star of the series has never been the cast; it’s alway been the eye-popping production design, cinematography, and fight choreography. And director Chad Stahelski has once again delivered the goods and then some. The word “slick” doesn’t even begin to describe how good this film looks. Like most films from 87Eleven Productions, each sequence has been purposefully designed with its own unique look and feel, upping the stakes with each new scene. The design is grand, with globe-hopping locations as distant as Osaka and Paris. But the real genius of the series is in how each space is utilized, and every sequence in “Chapter 4” is an absolute marvel of action filmmaking. There’s the red and blue neon-lit Osaka Continental and an Eastern European club with walls of rain. There’s an unbelievable chase scene around the Arc de Triomphe and a bonkers battle up and down (and up and down) the legendary steps of Sacré-Coeur. The array of sets and set pieces is dizzying, and cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s lush visuals makes sure the film is dazzling to look at even when there isn’t any action happening.
That’s good because some of the dialogue scenes go on for far longer than one would want in a series known for its wall-to-wall action. The incredibly portentous dialogue can get heavy as themes of brotherhood and consequences are laid on rather thick. Thankfully, the actors mostly pull through on the strength of their screen presence. These scenes slow the film down and bloat it to an indulgent length of over two and a half hours, making for a somewhat uneven viewing experience. But when those action scenes take over, none of that matters.
The action in “John Wick: Chapter 4” is out of this world fantastic. In one sequence, we watch from above as John battles his way through an old building, blowing people away with a gun so powerful it sets them on fire and blasts them through walls. The bird’s eye view oner is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, playing up the video game-like qualities of the series’ action in an exciting way. The shot is so good that Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen repeat it not even a minute later, and it’s just as exciting as the first time. And the way the action relates to the story is powerful: John’s quest, begun out of grief over the death of his wife and the dog she left him, has only gotten more complicated since the first film, and this latest and potentially final chapter openly engages with how violence only begets more violence. It’s only fitting that the film’s last extended action sequence literalizes that idea by having John fight on the stairs of Sacré-Coeur, as though he was Sisyphus pushing his boulder, never-ending toil that only brings him more and more pain.
But in the film’s surprisingly meditative finale, John deals with that pain and accepts what his quest has led to. The Western-inspired duel that ends the film feels like an appropriate ending to this chapter of John’s story; of course, this was always going to end with a pistol shoot-out, and what a shoot-out it is. The secret weapon of the “John Wick” films has always been the emotion that fuels John, and “Chapter 4” leans into that hard, ending in a way that is tonally consistent with what came before it but in a surprising way. Even with all the violence, all the bloodshed, all the lore, what has always mattered most are the characters. Even though the action in the series is awe-inspiring, the fact that this latest film ends in such a character-focused way inspires awe of a different, incredibly welcome kind.