Is the “John Wick” series the best (American) action franchise of all time? There are only four installments, so that may skew the grading a bit, but unlike other popular series like “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Terminator” and “Rambo,” it doesn’t contain any major misfires. Bringing the best reinvention of gunplay since John Woo’s Hong Kong films, with a melding of tactical ingenuity and visual flair, the series’ slightly convoluted story has found new ways to introduce amazing action sequences that consistently top what came before. Not only does “John Wick: Chapter 4” continue this tradition, but it’s arguably the best of the entire series. It doesn’t have the simplicity or emotional core of the first, but that is overshadowed by non-stop spectacle that defies expectations to deliver some of the most exciting action in an American film this century.
After getting shot off the roof of The Continental by his friend Winston (Ian McShane), John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has gone underground — literally, as he resides in the sewer under the protection of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), patching up his wounds and training to resume his vengeance on the High Table. When John begins to enact his revenge, the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård) enlists multiple assassins to take him out once and for all, including retired hitman Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior who is tasked with tracking and killing his former friend.
There are only so many ways to say, “This movie is awesome,” yet “John Wick: Chapter 4” is deserving of them all, despite a nearly three-hour runtime that is never felt thanks to director Chad Stahelski’s excellent command of pacing. Badass sequence after badass sequence unfolds in dynamic new ways that never feel repetitive but rather constantly inventive in the stunt coordination as well as how the action is captured on film. It never feels like sensory overload, either, thanks to the vibrant script by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch, which introduces quieter moments in between the (usually literal) explosive scenes, These calms before the storm are used to ratchet up the stakes and build character for the newest members of the roster, particularly Skarsgård and Yen.
“The Expendables” touted itself as the greatest collection of cinematic badasses on screen in one movie, but “John Wick: Chapter 4” gives it a run for its money (and actually uses all the people exceptionally well). Yen, Hiroyuki Sanada, Scott Adkins and Marko Zaror are all top-notch action performers who mesmerize with their physical prowess and command of the screen. The fact that Adkins can be as nimble and impressive while decked out in a fat suit is a true testament to his skillset, improved only by the fact that he is genuinely menacing rather than an obese joke. Performer Rina Sawayama is especially amazing, as this is her first action outing. I hope this is a preview for many more roles to come, as she is superb at carrying out the complex choreography in a fluid way that suggests she’s been doing this for decades.
But at the center of it all is Keanu Reeves. Once a Hollywood punchline who was depicted as some sort of male bimbo, it seems that people have finally come around to his earnest approach to his work. He doesn’t have pages of monologues and, as noted, is but one badass cog in a badass machine, but he carries “John Wick: Chapter 4” on his determined sincerity. The world of “John Wick” is a hyperreality that often defies credulity and even physics, but it’s grounded in the genuine sense of pain and anger that Reeves conveys. He had his chance at redemption but chose to dive back into a life of violence, with all the bloodshed and tragedy coming from his inability to deny his destructive nature. He is a tragic figure, but he’s a noble one who is seeking to emerge from this dark world for the second time… even if it seems like he will be eternally drawn back to it.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” doesn’t have the emotional immediacy of the first movie. The tangible feeling of loss and righteous anger has been replaced by a constant movement to stay one step ahead of disaster. Wick is reacting to what has been done to him, as opposed to what was taken from him. That lack of poignancy robs the film of some of its depth and impact, but there are still enough rousing sequences to distract from such a disconnect. It would be hard to outdo the loss of a simpler life as the main impetus this late in the franchise, but more callbacks to the pain caused by Wick’s torching of worlds would have been welcomed.
The “John Wick” movies have always been about loss. How to cope with what was taken. How we are the architects of our own pain. And what is left behind when everything is stripped away. Sure, it’s dressed up with incredible headshots and dazzling fight choreography, but at its heart, the franchise is about finding out who we are after we’ve lost everything. While that is not the emphasis of “Chapter 4,” it is still a thematic presence in the storytelling and pulls in other characters beyond the titular protagonist into the discussion of what remains. Whatever the movie lacks in emotional resonance it more than makes up for in amazing spectacle with a mix of inventive scenarios that showcase the playful side of these impressively original action sequences. The “John Wick” series continues to be the most impressive action franchise of the modern era, and “John Wick: Chapter 4” solidifies that reign with a truly awesome film that delivers on every level.
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Bill Skarsgård, Donnie Yen, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rina Sawayama, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror
Director: Chad Stahelski