Welcome back, Mr. Wick. Four years after “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” director Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves have returned to theaters with “John Wick: Chapter 4,” a film that was supposed to hit theaters 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 chapters with the streamlined action of the first film, resulting in a final hour here that stands among the best of the genre.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” opens with its title character (Reeves) 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. The 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, 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.
They also have wonderfully defined stakes. At one point in the film, John and an enemy decide on the parameters of a battle, including time, weapons, and variables. But this is really true of all the major action scenes, in which we very clearly understand what John needs to do and who he needs to go through to “finish the level.” The simplicity of objectives allows for complex choreography. We know what needs to happen for John to keep pushing forward as he has since the beginning of the first film. So much modern action is cluttered with characters or muddled objectives, but the “Wick” films have such brilliant clarity of intention that they can then have fun within those simple constructs.
So much fun. The choreography of the action here can be simply breathtaking. I loved how often the world goes on around Wick and his unfortunate combatants. In a sequence that would be the best in almost any other recent action movie (but is like 3rd or 4th here), Wick has to battle a makeup-covered Scott Adkins and his army of unlucky idiots in a crowded nightclub. The dancers barely notice. They sometimes part a little bit to let them through, but they don’t stop and stare. With water pouring into the club, the writhing, and dancing bodies make for such a visually inventive backdrop. Later, in one of my favorite action sequences of all time, Wick and his predators battle in the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe. The cars don’t stop. In fact, it feels like they speed up. As shots ring out in the streets in this film, no one opens the window to see what the hell is going on. The world outside of Wick and the mythology of this world almost feels like they can’t even see the legendary assassin and the hundred or so people he ends up killing. It’s a fascinating, visually striking choice.
And 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.
Of course, a great cast helps too. Reeves might have fewer lines in this movie than any so far in the franchise, but he completely sells Wick’s commitment while also imbuing him with emotional exhaustion that adds more gravity to this chapter. The vengeful Wick of the first film is a different one than the survivor three movies later, and Reeves knows exactly what this character needs. So many performers would add unnecessary touches to a character that’s already this popular, but Reeves is smart about streamlining this performance to fit the film around him. It also allows for a few supporters to shine in different performance registers, especially Yen and Anderson. The legendary Yen is fantastic here, not just in combat but the moments in between. Most people who know who Donnie Yen is won’t be surprised to hear that he fits in here perfectly, but he’s even better than you expect. Anderson also gives a fun performance as a man who just seems to be a mercenary waiting for the right price, but fans of the series will note from the beginning that this badass has a dog, and this universe values puppies and people who love them.
The only minor flaw in Wick’s armor here is a bit of narrative self-indulgence. There are a few scenes, especially early, when it feels like a beat is going on a bit too long, and I do think there’s a slightly tighter (if you can say 150 minutes would be tight) version of this film that’s simply perfect.
Fans won’t care. Much has been made of what brings people out to theaters 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 marveling 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.
This review was filed from the North American premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. “John Wick: Chapter 4” opens on March 24th.