Before the pandemic, we ran a review of the third John Wick film by a fan of the series. I am not one, and watching the gargantuan 169-minute John Wick: Chapter 4 reminded me of why, even though this is John’s best outing, amplifying all the movies’ considerable strengths.
There’s a brief bit near the beginning of this fourth installment with John (Keanu Reeves) riding on horseback through some Arabian desert, and I thought this would be a much-needed change to the look of the series. Alas, he goes from there to Osaka, Berlin, and Paris, with all of them sporting the same neon lighting and rain-soaked nocturnal streets of the New York City that he left. The fan cited the analog tech and arcane rituals of the Wick-verse as distinguishing features among Hollywood franchises, and they are, but to me they’re just window dressing, all pregnant with meaning without actually meaning anything.
I’ve come to appreciate that the Wick-verse is a hermetic place where everybody is a killer for hire (or an innocent child of one who exists so that their parents can be blackmailed by threats to their safety). Still, if you’re going to do that, it seems better to acknowledge it with a bit of absurdity, the way the Kill Bill movies or even Bullet Train did. All the po-faced solemnity of the Wick movies makes me long for one good joke or one character who thinks this world’s symbols and codes of conduct are so much crap. The villain (Bill Skarsgård), a marquis who’s douchey as only a French aristocrat can be to both Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (the late Lance Reddick, R.I.P.), taunts John that all he’s good for is killing people. While that’s refreshing, it would be more so if anybody in this world found fulfillment doing anything else.
Speaking of which, despite the movie’s triple-digit body count, shooting someone in these movies is like stabbing someone in the Scream movies: It accomplishes nothing. The body armor here is so good that everyone is basically a zombie whom you can kill with only a head shot. During a climactic fight sequence at the Arc de Triomphe, John is hit by six different cars — seven if you count the parked van that he lands on when he jumps out a third-story window — without any visible ill effects.
What this movie has are those action scenes, which I’ll watch all day. The big set piece is meant to be the one on the staircase leading up to the Sacré-Cœur, in which John is kicked down all 222 steps by a large henchman (Marko Zaror) — this is after being hit by all those cars, by the way. I’m more impressed by the fight scene amid a Japanese art collection, as John and a blinded Chinese colleague-turned-enemy (Donnie Yen) temporarily team up to take down a squad of Spanish assassins. The Chinese killer later squares off with the manager of the Osaka hotel (Hiroyuki Sanada), providing an instructive contrast between Chinese and Japanese sword techniques. Yen turns 60 this year, and his fluid grace is even more impressive when he’s making moves without looking at the person he’s fighting. I also like the overhead angle that director Chad Stahelski takes when John goes through a Parisian apartment with a shotgun whose shells cause people to burst into flames.
I need to mention Scott Adkins, the underappreciated English action star who typically plays white-guy villains in Asian martial-arts movies. He almost steals this film before he even gets up from his chair, playing an obese, asthmatic German mob boss who sits down with the movie’s three baddest asses and sleazes all over them until they’re thoroughly disgusted. When the fighting does break out, he shrugs off John’s punches and picks up the hero bodily to slam him against concrete surfaces. For all you fellow Adkins fans out there, this is a showcase for him.
The movie drops numerous hints that this is John’s final adventure, and if it is, it’s a fitting way for him to go out. I haven’t even mentioned some younger talents in Shamier Anderson and Rina Sawayama, who both show enough here to conceivably carry a spinoff from the series. All this is great, but I can’t help noticing that the Oscar for Best Picture just went to a martial-arts movie that used the fighting to tell a compelling story. Next to that, the characters and world-building in the John Wick saga is weak sauce. Good thing the series has always kept an eye on what it does well and given us YouTube fistfights, shootouts, and car chases to last a lifetime.
John Wick: Chapter 4
Starring Keanu Reeves and Donnie Yen. Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Shay Hatten, Michael Finch, and Derek Kolstad. Rated R.