Who would have predicted back in 2014 that John Wick, a movie starring Keanu Reeves as a former legendary assassin avenging the death of his puppy, would become a four-installment franchise phenomenon?
Debuting at #2 behind the movie Ouija, and going on to gross just above $40M at the domestic box office, pundits at the time wrote off the first movie as nothing more than a fairly moderate success. It’s now close to 10 years later, and Reeves’ sharpshooting Baba Yaga has become a cultural icon! Now with John Wick: Chapter 4 coming out next week, audiences need to get ready to buckle up for hands down, the most epic installment in the franchise’s legacy!
How and why did the first film become so endearing? The answer is simple. The action. Upon its initial release no one expected the movie to be as flawlessly well-choreographed and meticulously staged as it was! A film that prioritized practical stuntwork over CGI blob-fests, the success of the franchise ended up becoming a slow burn as soon-to-be die hard fans got wind of the movie’s terrific blend of high-octaine chase sequences and dynamic gun-fu. Combined with the irresistible charm and hard work of its lead Keanu Reeves, it’s no wonder success has gotten bigger and better with every subsequent installment. And I’m happy to report that John Wick: Chapter 4 never loses sight of what makes this franchise so great, leveraging all of the above strengths that have been staples for the films — only dialed up to 11!
When we last saw Mr. Wick, he had just been shot off the rooftop of The Continental — New York by Winston (Ian McShane), after spending an entire night defending the hotel from the forces of The High Table and The Adjudicator. The 4th installment picks up some time later with The Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne) backing John, and the pair conspiring to stick it to The High Table for good. After John finishes an assassination mission, as part of their plan, The High Table sends the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgard) to rectify the mistakes made by Winston and Chiron (Lance Reddick), and eliminate the Baba Yaga. This means sending John’s old ally, blind assassin, Caine (Donnie Yen) after John. As such, John must rely on his resilience, favors from some old friends and family (Hiroyuki Sanada, Rina Sawayama, and Natalia Tena), and of course, his bullets to survive and find a way out once and for all.
The story and world-building of the John Wick universe has always been incredibly interesting, but has always come secondary to the action, and Chapter 4 is no exception. The action sequences on display here are stellar! It’s hard to find ways to up the ante with every movie, but dear God, Chapter 4 crushes that goal! There are at least three game-changing sequences off the top of my head, and that’s just a fraction of the number of sequences they have in this movie. There’s an epic scene that happens around the Arc de Triomphe with cars speeding around during a gunfight, a birds-eye view sequence through an apartment with a flaming shotgun, and a scene that makes going up and down a flight of stairs an actual event!
I cannot begin to describe how unbelievably exciting and incredible these sequences are. And the thing is, with the amount of action in this movie, it would be easy for things to get monotonous after a while. And to a degree there is a certain pattern the movie follows that that doesn’t always work (more on that below). But the one thing that’s quite incredible is that when things start to feel repetitive, or like they’re on the brink of going stale — WHAM! — Stahelski and Reeves find a way to pull you back in with some incredible action feats never before put to screen! It is simply a testament that an original franchise that’s been going on for this many films can still give you some new tricks to make it feel fresh!
The other huge strength about Chapter 4 are the epic performances — both from an acting standpoint and fight choreography! Reeves is obviously the leader of the band. And everyone involved is taking their cues from the master. But that means everyone ups their game tenfold here to match him blow-for-blow, at times exceeding him. And by that, of course, I’m referring to Sanada, Sawayama, Skarsgard, and of course, the incredible Donnie Yen!
Sanada and Sawayama are wonderful and interesting characters with a lot of emotion. The biggest downside for them is that we don’t get as much of them as we should. But they’re richly developed enough based on what we do get, and they are really giving the action scenes their all. Additionally, Skarsgard’s Marquis is a terrific villain! He’s smarmy, and cowardly, but also menacing. You honestly grow to hate his face.
However, Yen’s Caine deserves a separate paragraph. I find it hilarious that like his breakout Rogue One character, Chirrut Imwe, he’s a blind master of sorts (I do hope Hollywood knows Yen can actually see). His character is complex, and challenging, and a perfect foil for Sanada’s Koji. They both represent characters faced with having to choose between friendship and servitude. And their differences eventually bring them to blows with one another, in a fight scene that’s so incredible, it has to be seen to be believed. Yen’s multiple fights both with and against Reeves are also stunning! He’s just incredible. But it helps that his character is quite well written, and much deeper than it has any right to be. It gives him the opportunity to show off some terrific acting chops, and not just his chops from a blade.
Visually speaking as well, this is the most gorgeous looking John Wick film ever put to screen. Every scene that we see Reeves in is shot with terrific color and with a sense of symmetry that would make Wes Anderson jealous. The cinematography in this movie is comparable to that of The Batman, which I thought had some of the most beautiful shots of last year. The sound in this is also terrific, as we get to hear every screeching tire and the impact felt from every gunshot and clanging metal sword or nunchuck. It really does make every action scene we get feel palpable, as if we’re right there where the action is.
However, as terrific and fun as this movie is, I must emphasize it isn’t perfect. Coming in at a whopping 169 minutes, John Wick: Chapter 4 is the longest entry in the franchise. And there’s a somewhat understandable reason for that runtime (even if I don’t necessarily agree with it), which makes itself very clear by the end of the movie. However, I need to confess that there’s at least 30-45 minutes of characters and subplots that could have been removed from the narrative overall.
There is a long portion of this film that involves a subplot featuring Scott Adkins in a fat suit, which I felt really did not need to be part of this story. I love Scott Adkins and think he’s a terrific action actor and stuntman. But he literally didn’t need to be in this movie, or in any sort of a body suit. The movie feels the need to shoehorn in this subplot just for the sake of having another action sequence. But in reality, the screenplay could have resolved this with a simple conversation between John and his family.
Which really is a symbol for the film’s biggest sin — an overindulgence in excess. There’s too many characters, too many subplots, and even (I hate to admit this) too many action scenes. I know that sounds like a crazy criticism for a John Wick movie, but hear me out. The biggest and best set pieces should obviously stay in the movie, especially given their relevance to the story. But we could have actually chopped off a few of the less interesting moments, and even shortened some of the incredible action scenes we do get. It’s not that I didn’t love every bone crunching moment we get, or the brilliant choreography and stuntwork from each. But they run excessively long at times.
For instance, Reeves has a terrific moment where he’s battling people with nunchucks. It’s terrific. It’s well done. But it’s way too long. And the overindulgence in these moments does weigh the pacing of the movie down. Right after that scene are back-to-back action beats featuring a gorgeous battle between him and Donnie Yen, another between him, Sanada, and Sawayama against several High Table assassins, and a lovely battle with Yen and Sanada. All one after the other.
Look, I realize I’m complaining about something that should be exciting. And again, just when things do feel like too much and you’re ready to move on, something does come along to make things interesting again. That said, why do we need to get to the point where things feel stale? Why not just trim things down a bit? Did we need all of the nunchuck action sequence, if we have three other more important, and emotionally driven sequences following it? I mean the action is great, but you don’t need every second of it. Which I realize will be a controversial opinion. But for me it got a bit repetitive.
Every act in this movie ends up with a quiet moment of set up between John and a character. A minimalist exchange of words encouraging John to go from location A to location B. John will get to location B, and an action scene will take place with him and a million guys. Then once the action beat or beats concludes, another quiet conversation with a character to get John to location C, and another fight scene. And so on and so forth. And look, that’s been the formula for every John Wick film for the past nine years. But you do feel the repetitive nature of it, as things begin to feel monotonous and overly familiar. And, sadly, that did get old for me after a while.
There are admittedly even a few characters too many in this movie as well. And I touched on this with Adkin’s character, but even moreso, I mean this in the case of Shamier Anderson’s Tracker (aka Mr. Nobody). While Anderson is a fine actor, there is literally no reason for his character to exist. Even if we find him saving John at times, there’s no reason you could have written around that, and had John just defeat the bad guys he’s fighting. Apart from him having a dog, which is always welcome in a John Wick movie, if you were honestly to remove his character, you’d still get the same movie, but tighter. The character honestly doesn’t serve any emotional purpose. He’s not tied to John’s past or his future in any way. Nor does he bring any sort of emotional purpose to the mix. He simply appears, and does a few action beats, aggravates Bill Skarsgard, and then concludes his arc by sitting down and watching the action unfold. That’s it.
Even in regards to characters I did like — like Sawayama’s Akira, who is more important to the story than Anderson’s character overall — her character’s arc and storyline really don’t pay off until the post-credits sequences. Which really prompts me to wonder why they even needed to include the character since aspects about her story don’t really get resolved within the main narrative of John’s story. I mean, what is this? The MCU? Sawayama is great, and has some really killer action scenes. And her storyline does strengthen the film’s themes about rules and consequences, But again, since the payoff is really after the movie’s already over, removing her character wouldn’t have been detrimental to the story.
And as I’m very aware, no one’s going to a John Wick movie for the story. They want the action. So I’d understand if you wanted to scoff at the opinion of a curmudgeon like me, who complained about too much action, or the frivolous reasons to bring in recognizable action stars into the film. But I do think we’ve come far enough in this franchise to care about both the character and the story. And while we get enough of that to satisfy our appetites and give us a satisfactory conclusion for the film and its characters, I fully believe that the narrative could have been tighter, and more engaging without the excess moments as well. And as such, the overstuffed nature of the film really did impact my enjoyment of it by a smidge.
But that being said, though I just complained about the excess action beats, you’re still never going to see anything in movies these days that comes close to what the filmmakers manage to accomplish in this movie from an action standpoint. And you will absolutely still find yourself having a blast, watching Reeves…. well… blast everyone else! Audiences are going to cheer, wince, laugh, and just have a riotous good time watching the bullets fly and the steel clash. Anchored by Reeves’ strong work both as an actor and a hard working action star, and enhanced by the brilliant moments of action and acting from stars like Yen and Sanada, John Wick: Chapter 4 is an incredibly satisfying, epic (if not a bit overstuffed) installment in a franchise we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy for the past nine years. And I couldn’t be more grateful for the world director Chad Stahelski and creator Derek Kolstad have created for us all.
Overall Score: B