‘John Wick: Chapter 4’: Keanu Reeves Saves Action Movies Again
Fess up: You had no idea John Wick would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Not an inkling. Not a hint. Not even a teeny, tiny clue.
No one could have predicted that a movie burdened with a title taken from the name of its lead character — who is John Wick? Why should we even care? — and that starred an actor who’d been off the public’s radar for a bit, would synthesize a decade’s worth of genre cinema and revolutionize American action movies. Keanu Reeves still looked fit, still wore those slim black suits like a boss, still utilized his signature monotone to suggest stoner-like awe and/or menace. But here was the ‘90s posterboy edging into his 50s, playing a hit man who gets dragged back into the life one last time, forced to use his particular set of skills in the name of revenge. The inciting factor: Bad guys killed his puppy.
The question wasn’t, “Will this be good?” so much as, “Wait, what year is it again?” Or maybe, “How is this not going straight to VOD?” Nobody was thinking about cinematic universes or career resuscitations or hospitality industries devoted to solely to hired killers. How little we knew.
Nine years, three glorious “chapters” and one iconic role later, the saga of the world’s greatest assassin battling fellow death dealers, kingpins, and crime-syndicate eccentrics has established itself as the most reliable film franchise this side of Mission: Impossible. Like those blockbusters, the Wick movies live or die on the presence, charisma, and work ethic of a single star (though you don’t feel that Reeves shares the are-you-not-entertained?! death wish as the matinee idol powering the M:I movies). Almost as crucially, they rely on the same palpable sense of real physical action being performed by real physical people. You’re always aware that the long-shot/long-take fight sequences, shootouts, knife-fu melees, chase scenes, and stunt-heavy thug sieges are coming to you courtesy of genuine blood, sweat, and tears. There are VFX in the Wick movies, for sure, yet the films’ three-ring mayhem circuses always favor choreography over mouse clicks. They are the closest things we have to modern-day musicals — less bullet ballets than ballistic Busby Berkeley extravaganzas.
The fourth time is rarely if ever a charm, and given the way that each movie has successively upped the ante, John Wick: Chapter 4 — the latest and likely last entry — has to bear the burden of serious expectations. Logic dictates a new adventure must be bigger, faster, louder. It has to be beyond Wick-ier. That type of thinking is a trap, and while our impeccably dressed baba yaga falls into his share of ambushes and pitfalls, the filmmakers nimbly avoid the lure of supersizing everything at the expense of artisanal adrenaline rushes and character lore. Yes, the running time is just short of three hours, and there are several set pieces (an extended attack on a Tokyo hotel, a free-for-all in traffic around the Arc de Triomphe) that hold their own against the series’ best bits of meticulously assembled chaos. Should you think Chapter 4 is short on ambition and scope, please note that it liberally lifts one of the single most famous edits in film-epic history in its first 10 minutes.
Yet the story is still centered around a Pulp 101 narrative of one seemingly indestructible man fighting his way back to freedom, obstacles and detours be damned. Franchise stalwarts director Chad Stahelski, screenwriter Derek Kolstad, and Reeves have this down to a science now, and they know they can throw all sorts of spectacles, supporting players, etc. on top of what’s essentially a Zen-like character study. John kills, therefore he is. See John kill. Run, John, run. The almost blank-slate idea of this protagonist is partially why the role is ideal for Reeves’ minimal expressiveness, even when he’s kicking maximum ass. Take away the sound and fury, and you still have momentum thanks to him. The actor is the calm at the center of the carnage. It’s likely not a coincidence that this swan song of sorts opens on a single bloody fist punching a bag and exits with an old-fashioned duel.
The gent responsible for that pistols-at-dawn tête-à-tête is known as the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård), a part-time French aristocrat and full-time sadist who has designs on taking control of the High Table, i.e. the secret council that rules over a vast, international underworld. His first move is to send a message by punishing Winston (Ian McShane), the New York Continental’s manager, for helping the excommunicado Wick. Never mind that the hotel’s boss shot his friend off the five-star accommodation’s roof at the end of Chapter 3; the Marquis is still going to demolish the building, much to Winston and his concierge’s horror. (That latter role is once again played by Lance Reddick, which only adds an extra layer of eulogistic pathos to the proceedings. R.I.P. to a legend.) His next plan is to call in a marker on Caine (martial arts godhead Donnie Yen), a retired blind assassin and old pal of Wick’s, in order to terminate the fugitive with extreme prejudice.
As for Wick, he’s still in the wind and trying to avoid an army of freelance killers looking to collect on that open-contract bounty, notably a nameless tracker (Shamier Anderson) who, like John, is a committed dog lover. He joins an ensemble of allies and enemies that move in and out of Wick’s orbit, including the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), the Tokyo Continental’s bigwig (Hiroyuki Sanada), his daughter (pop star Rina Sawayama), the Marquis’ hulking enforcer (Marko Zaror), a criminal matriarch (Game of Thrones’ Natalia Tena), a High Table harbringer (Clancy Brown), and corpulent German über-crook (Scott Adkins) who’s got card-shark skills and, surprisingly, serious Taekwondo chops.
Because this is a John Wick movie, you expect at least one protracted fight in a building filled with lots of glass, and a showdown in an exotic, neon-lit nightclub. Chapter 4 provides both, right on time, and doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel in either case — Stahelski and his crew just make sure there’s plenty of tread left on those respective set-piece tires. Donnie Yen’s customized riff on Zatoichi gets several solo turns, and the star makes the most of some ingenious business involving electronic doorbells. Every stunt man employed here should get a bonus, and Reeves has not only kept up his training but picked up some new skills; who knew he was so handy with nunchaku? The chase sequence that ends with human bodies vs. speeding autos in Paris is such a showstopper that you almost don’t care about the velvet-voiced D.J. narrator blurring the line between The Warriors homage and rip-off. There’s a bit with a 222-step staircase that has such a genius silent-comedy payoff, you can practically hear Buster Keaton Rudy-clapping in the afterlife.
Merely listing an inventory of John Wick: Chapter 4’s greatest hits — that phrase can be taken literally in this case — doesn’t do justice to the way that everyone involved with this final chapter maintains the high standard that’s made the franchise so deliriously pleasurable. Or at the very least, pure manna for those of us who like our screen action to feel like they’re putting the “motion” into motion pictures, as if the folks behind the scenes took pride in constructing these thrilling sequences with a sense of professionalism and imagination. Even its conservative streak (has any other action franchise been so obsessed with rules, traditions, bylaws, bloodlines, codes of conduct?) and tough-guy corniness still feels freshly retro-styled and amped up after four outings.
You may be slightly exhausted by the time you get to the boss level, in which an anachronistic way of settling scores man-to-man is turned into something witty, clever, and as exciting as a Destroy-All-Mobsters massacre in a Euro-goth dance club or desert kasbah. A landing is stuck, in other words. That’s no small feat. Nor is delivering a quadrilogy with zero weak links, not getting tripped up in your universe’s mythology or making you completely rethink your notions about what certain movie stars could do. We came into this series tickled by the element of surprise. And we leave Chapter 4 with the distinct feeling of satisfaction. How good it was to see you again, Mr. Wick.