Movie Review: John Wick, Chapter 4
Welcome back, Mr Wick. Four years after "John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum," director Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves have returned to theatres.
"John Wick: Chapter 4" was supposed to hit theatres almost two full years ago. Trust me, it was worth the wait. Stahelski and writers Shay Hatten and Michael Finch have distilled the mythology-heavy approach of the last couple of chapters with the streamlined action of the first film, resulting in a final act that stands among the best of the genre. "John Wick: Chapter 4" opens with its title character on the run again as the villainous Powers That Be known as the High Table get in his way. The main villain of the series is the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), a leader of the High Table who keeps raising the bounty on Wick's head while he also cleans up the messes left behind, including potentially eliminating Winston Scott (Ian McShane) and his part of this nefarious organization. The opening scenes take Wick to Japan, where he seeks help from the head of the Osaka Continental, Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada), and runs afoul of a blind High Table assassin named Caine (the badass Donnie Yen). Laurence Fishburne pops up now and then as Wick's “Q” when the killer needs a new bulletproof suit, and Shamier Anderson plays an assassin who seems to be waiting for the price on Wick's head to hit the right level for him to get his payday. More than the last couple of films, the plot here, despite the movie's epic runtime (169 minutes), feels refreshingly focused again: Here's John Wick. Here are the bad guys. Go!
And go they do. Stahelski and his team construct action sequences in a manner that somehow feels both urgent and artistically choreographed at the same time. Filmmakers who over-think their shoot-outs often land on a tone that feels distant, lacking in stakes, and feeling more stylish than substantial. Great action directors figure out how to film combat in a way that doesn't sacrifice tension for showmanship. The action sequences in "John Wick: Chapter 4" are long battles, and gun-fu shoot-outs between John and dozens of people who underestimate him, but they have so much momentum that they don't overstay their welcome.
Yet by the end, I held a nagging belief that Stahelski and the Chapter 4 script didn’t quite capitalize on all of Reeves’s strengths. This Wick is exceedingly, almost frustratingly, terse and stoic, muttering one-liners and ‘yeahs’ that could easily trip into the parodic. Reeves is good and game. But the story doesn’t capitulate with earnestness or heartfelt dialogue, choosing to highlight his physical grace and determination above all else. Reeves has always been a performer defined not just by the delicate beauty of his body but by an emotional clarity and sweetness that is almost nowhere to be found in this film. Moments with Yen, including a candlelit church scene, are where Chapter 4 comes closest to Reeves’s complexity as an actor who lies at the nexus of virility and vulnerability. What ends up most intriguing about his performance is the subtext of the movie’s denouement: the idea that Reeves is, for however long, ceding the John Wick spotlight — unlike his aging-star cohort (think Brad Pitt in “Bullet Train” and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick”), who welcome neophytes into their fold but insist on outlasting them. Reeves is a star who doesn’t suck up all of the oxygen. He can mould himself to work and pull back when necessary — but maybe too far back this time, as his performance tips into laconic and guarded by the close. Chapter 4 ends, with an echo of a crucial one in the beloved ’90s anime “Cowboy Bebop”, which feels like it’s fighting the gravitational force of Reeves rather than submitting to it.
And it’s not just Reeves but the many actors in his orbit who shine with a blend of vengeful grace and humorous beats. Bodies everywhere are cut, shot through, flipped, broken, and strangely beautiful when meeting their ends. Although not every end feels quite earned. The late Lance Reddick becomes a sacrificial lamb early on in this chapter, and his storyline is shuffled away too quickly. Fishburne’s Shakespearean Bowery King and Clancy Brown’s Harbinger are not used to the full degree that they should be either, but anytime their booming voices are used, the film shines brighter. Donnie Yen plays Caine, a close friend of Wick’s who is pulled back into the life of an assassin to kill his comrade. He has already given up his eyesight in order to protect his daughter and get out, but here, he is forced to endure. He’s delightfully cheeky in his fight scenes, moving with quick-witted, silken force, making Wick’s brutality all the more blatant. Yen truly is the film’s MVP — whether he’s slurping down food and ignoring the violence blooming around him or shit-talking the Marquis to his face.
Then there’s Sanada’s beautifully rendered Shimazu, dear and determined, who puts his life on the line out of love for Wick and a belief in honour. The friendship between these three men is crucial to the emotional world of the film and gives it layers I wasn’t expecting but wanted more of. When Wick speaks Japanese to Shimazu or shares a long gaze with Caine, these relationships are given an intimacy that relies on Reeves’s own three-decade-long history as a star undergirded by considerations of race, identity, and history. But I was especially surprised by just how damn good pop star Sawayama is in her role. She’s giving looks, poses, the right angles, charisma, and grit. She’s so eye-catching that I got lost in the beauty of her performance whenever she was onscreen.
So, what about Skarsgård? In many ways, the Marquis and Wick are a study in opposites. Where Wick is stoic and terse, the Marquis is the kind of man who says lines like “Second chances are the refuge of men who fail.” He likes his espresso sweet, his waistcoats fabulous, and his violence flowing endlessly. While Wick earned his reputation, the Marquis was bequeathed his. Wick believes in formality, and the Marquis flouts the rules. Costuming is a strength of the series, which is apparent in this chapter’s fine suits, particularly the Marquis’s — of crimson, of navy, of twilight. Skarsgård leans into the camp and archness roiling under the surface of this franchise.
Then there's what I would call Action Geography. So many people have tried to mimic the frenetic approach of the "Bourne" movies, and the results have often been more incoherent than not. The amazing cinematographer Dan Laustsen (a regular Guillermo del Toro collaborator on "The Shape of Water," "Nightmare Alley," and more) works with Stahelski to make sure the action here is clean and brutal, never confusing. The stunt work is phenomenal, and, again, the shoot-outs have the feel of dance choreography more than the bland plot-pushing of so many studio films. There's just so much grace and ingenuity whenever Wick goes to work.
In Chapter 4, Keanu Reeves endures so many violent falls that would kill anyone else, but he always gets up and continues to fight another day — the humour of this inevitability hitting at the same moment as the fear of what could actually end him. This action is crucial to character building and styled specifically for each — though almost everyone in the world is balletic, smooth, and endlessly cool in the face of guns, knives, swords, and all other weaponry on the table. Even the lighting understands this specific fiction, punctuating darkness with cartoonish pops of neon. This approach to action has been broadly adopted in Hollywood, but those that seek to replicate its charms often fail with a lack of clarity and use of darkness through which the audience can’t see a damn thing. They forget how badly we want to watch — and really see — a star with the heft of Reeves commit these acts of glorious violence.
Director Chad Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen create arguably the best-looking of the John Wick films. The quiet moments are evocative — like when Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King blows out a match before the camera cuts to a cresting sunset (a cheeky homage to Lawrence of Arabia and one of the most famous cuts in film history) — and the unleashing of violence is clear and easy to follow. There’s no confusion when it comes to how and where characters are inhabiting space. The stellar production design deserves credit as well, particularly in the way the Osaka Continental is dressed and designed. Its clean lines, glossy surfaces, glass-encased weapons and artefacts, and all-around cool tones diligently build out this world defined by the intertwining of beauty and blood. I was struck by the use of so many shades of red against this backdrop — magenta, crimson, cherry. One of the most tantalizing shots positions Reeves in the left corner, the field of vision otherwise dominated by cherry blossoms in full bloom and a circular building sliced with lights of arterial red. Stahelski and Laustsen make profound use of horizontal space even when one of its best blunders, played out by Reeves on the 222 steps of Paris’s Sacré Coeur basilica, is obviously vertically defined.
Overall, fans will care about the details. Much has been made of what brings people out to theatres in the post-pandemic, streaming-heavy world, and this is a movie that should be seen with a cheering, excited crowd. It has that contagious energy we love in action films—a whole room of people marvelling at the ingenuity and intensity of what's unfolding in front of them. It's a movie that's meant to be watched loud and big. John Wick has fought hard for it. Now, shouldn’t Wick be coming at the High Table, not a proxy? Shouldn’t Wick’s last fight reflect the grandness and dynamism of its focal point? Chapter 4 is a deliriously entertaining entry into the franchise, but its final moments can’t help but put into harsh relief the fact that this ridiculous world of glory and gut punches is evolving to exist without its namesake, yet it still needs him to feel alive.
Watch the trailer