A film review by Craig J. Koban April 6, 2023


2023, R, 169 mins.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick  /  Donnie Yen as Caine  /  Ian McShane as Winston  /  Bill Skarsgård as Marquis de Gramont  /  Laurence Fishburne as Bowery King  /  Clancy Brown as The Harbinger  /  Hiroyuki Sanada as Shimazu  /  Lance Reddick as Charon  /  Shamier Anderson as Tracker  /  Rina Sawayama as Akira  /  Scott Adkins as Killa  /  Marko Zaror as Chidi  /  Natalia Tena as Katia  /  George Georgiou as The Elder

Directed by Chad Stahelski  /  Written by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch

In my review of the last JOHN WICK back in 2019, I lovingly referred to it in the grand tradition of what the late Roger Ebert coined as a magnificent "Bruised Forearm Movie," or the kind of movie "where your date is always grabbing your forearm in a viselike grip, as unbearable excitement unfolds on the screen."  

I thought that JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM was one of the greatest Bruised Forearm Movies ever made, with its previous two series installments being highly worthy of said moniker as well.  Now, after four years of long waiting (which was largely precipitated by pandemic unease in the industry), we finally have JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 upon us, which, to be fair, gets off to a bit of a slower start than the previous sequels and is perhaps too long for its own good.  Having said that, as a pure and unpretentious engine to deliver one unrelentingly hard-hitting and impactful action sequence after another, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 is a masterfully assembled powerhouse.  This movie will not only bruise many a forearm, but will likely lead to full body paralysis upon one's screening ending.

I gushed with praise for the first JOHN WICK in 2014, mostly because of its lean, mean, and skillfully precise and fluid manner of doing for the action genre what so bloody many examples of it have failed to muster over and over again. Directors Chad Stahelski and Derek Kolstad crafted an economical assassin/revenge thriller while employing some of the most graceful, fiendishly inventive, and propulsive set pieces that I have ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood action picture.  That, and it represented arguably the greatest matching of role and star with Keanu Reeves in the titular role. The franchise's introductory installment reaffirmed why Reeves should be in the upper echelon of action hero royalty, but it also audaciously and successfully redefined how action films should be conceived and executed.  

Then along came JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, which upped the ante from the already staggeringly good first film while exploring and embellishing the mythology of this ultra secretive world of hired hitmen.  Building even stronger off of all of that was CHAPTER 3, which miraculously even managed to surpass what came before.  All of this places JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 in a highly thorny position of finding new and novel ways to orchestrate its ballet of barbarism while propelling the Wick character and his world forward (and ultimately to a sense of story closure for him).  This fourth film is easily the most epically staged of the lot, both in terms of set pieces, storytelling, globetrotting to multiple parts of the world, and, yes, its literally length.  I would say that JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 might not have enough of a core story to warrant a whopping 169 minute running time (as its star might utter, whoa), but Stahelski (returning once again behind the camera) makes up for self-indulgent bloat on a level of magnificent showmanship and innovation.  Just when you think that you've seen every possible way that John Wick could employ to exterminate his endless stream of enemy combatants...well...think again.  

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 throws us back into the thick of things with Reeves' unkillable assassin on the run from the evil High Table, which was kick-started back in CHAPTER 2 when Wick committed a massive no-no by murdering a target on Continental Ground.  Being declared "excommunicado" for his killing of a High Table crime lord, Wick was forced to flee from seemingly every single hired hitman the world over.  After a thrilling showdown between Wick and a squadron of High Table goons at the New York Continental (headed up by one of his very few confidants in Winston, played by the unflappable Ian McShane), Wick once again has to go into hiding to secure his freedom and life.  Unfortunately for both Wick and Winston, High Table leader Marquis de Grammont (a brilliantly cast Bill Skarsgard) decides to make things deeply personal for the fugitive Wick. He not only raises the bounty for his head worldwide, but he also permanently shuts down his pal Winston's Continental, leaving this former manager without a job, purpose, and reason to live.  Wick decides to end his seclusion and goes out to face this leader and everything he throws at him, which initially takes him to Japan and the Osaka Continental, managed by an old ally in Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada).  While there, Wick is attacked by the High Table army, which now boasts a lethally dexterous blind killer named Caine (Donnie Yen), who has a past with Wick, but is coerced by the Marquis to track down and murder Wick to ensure his family's own survival.  Also on the prowl for Wick is Tracker (Shamier Anderson), another expert assassin (with German Shepherd sidekick attack dog) to end him as well.  Realizing that this will be a never-ending struggle, Wick decides to utilize a centuries-old High Table custom of challenging the Marquis to a duel with pistols at his command center in Paris, which both parties agree to.  Wick's ability to make it there is constantly and predictably interrupted by wave after wave of High Table hunters that want his head.   



Before we get to the real meat and potatoes of JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 (yup, the action), a bit of discussion needs to occur regarding the series' most undervalued asset: its ever-evolving and compelling world building.  The first film was relatively (and perhaps by design) spare when it came to dispensing the ins and outs of the larger world of assassins that permeates this self-contained action cinematic universe, but with the advent of the last two sequels, everything about Wick, his past, and his dealings with the mythological High Table have been gloriously embellished.  Looking back, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 makes the first JOHN WICK feel low key and quaint by direct comparison, with the latter, to be fair, serving as a low-stakes tale of one-man revenge after the murder of his (gasp!) puppy that his dead wife left him as a coping mechanism.  Wick's pain and torment from this clearly remains, but getting royally screwed by one high-ranking and untouchable High Table maniac puts Wick over the edge, leading to the on-the-run status he still maintains in CHAPTER 4.  

The overall geography has opened up considerably this go around (Wick travels everywhere from New York to Osaka, the Sahara, Berlin, and finally Paris), but the most noteworthy element here is the introduction of the unsavory and borderline reptilian new villain in the Marquis.  He's such a welcome new addition, and Skarsgard - no stranger to playing unhinged monsters in various forms before - is sensationally effective here as his impeccably well tailored, unfathomably rich, and power and blood lusting psychopath.  Also complimenting this ever-expanding lore is Anderson's Tracker, whose no-nonsense gumption finds ways of keeping Wick alive to ensure that he and he alone will net the biggest payday.  Then there's the legendary Yen - easily this sequel's finest new asset - as an emotionally conflicted blind assassin that's driven to kill Wick more for reasons of family self-preservation than for purely evil motives.

But, yeeeeeah, the reason we come to these films is for the artery spewing, bone crunching, and mercilessly unhinged action beats, and JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4's most mind-blowing achievement is in how Stahelski - once a Reeves stunt double and coordinator on THE MATRIX - has found a manner of giving us more of same with what we got before while finding delirious new ways of delivering said sameness.  One of the growing concerns with any franchise sequel is a sense of going-back-to-the-well and lazily rehashing what has come before.  JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 is just as much of a non-stop orgy of violence, to be sure, and features its main anti-hero murder-death-killing his way through so many hostile pursuers that the body count for this series has to be in the hundreds.  Wick kills more people than I could keep track of in this sequel, to be sure, but it's abundantly clear that Stahelski and his crackerjack stunt team are driven by an obsessive desire to do anything to separate this film's bravura action from what was previously bestowed upon us.  The perverse allure of the JOHN WICK films is in how they showcase - in brutal and unflinching detail (and smooth editorial clarity!) - how Wick uses every means available to exterminate foes with extreme efficiency.  And - damn it! - Stahelski and company manage to outdo themselves yet again.    

Take, for instance, a breathtakingly realized early showdown in Japan with Wick and his few Osaka allies defending themselves against the Marquis' heavily armored invaders, which builds to Wick employing nunchucks - after exploiting every other weapon - in lightning fast and creative ways that are nearly impossible to describe.  A setpiece like this would make for the climax of any other action picture, but JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 is just rolling up its sleeves and getting started at this point.  Later on we're served up an even more impressive sequence in a Berlin nightclub, during which time Wick has to go toe-to-toe with a massively obese crime boss (played in heavy makeup and prosthetics by Scott Adkins).  It's the final hour or so of the film, though, when it reaches its awesome crescendo of back-to-back-to-back action scenes that probably represent the best of what this franchise has ever offered.  The first segment - all done with one long and seemingly unbroken overhead shot - shows Wick utilizing a shotgun with explosive rounds, turning his targets into torched meat sacks.  The second involves Wick engaging in a high speed chase on foot and in vehicles with a non-stop wave of Parisian bounty hunters set in high traffic around Arc de Triomphe (cars of various sizes and shapes, careening in and out of control, end up becoming improvised instruments of death for Wick).  The undeniable pièce de résistance of the entire film is a magnificently-engineered big final brawl that has a ridiculously long outdoor stairwell leading to Wick's main targeted prize in the Marquis, and I can categorically tell you that something as simple as a stairwell has never been so intimidating of an obstacle for a hero to conquer as it is here. 

I marveled in stunned disbelief during this climactic scene and, hell, throughout a majority of JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4, and if it was even more possible, I came out of the film with a greater sense of respect and admiration for what Reeves has brought to the table with this franchise.  At a ripe 58-years-old, the eternally youthful and effortlessly cool looking star makes such a sizable and lasting physical  presence in these films.  Much has been said about how little dialogue he has in CHAPTER 4, but that's ultimately a false elephant in the room.  Like, say, Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name drifter hero, Wick is a plain-spoken and purposely stoic man of few words that instead lets his aura as an unbreakable force of steely-eyed vengeance do most of the talking.  And Reeves deserves full credit here for knowing precisely how to harness this character for just the right effect.  He says no more or less than he ever needs to in order to propel his character and the plot forward, and when we witness the actor put his aging frame and well being on the line over and over again for the sake of his craft and delivering what series fans clamor for, it warrants proper accolades.  Like Tom Cruise, Reeves' steadfast dedication and work ethic in the action genre is simply impossible to overlook and ignore.    

Still, the central question that plagued me as the end credits for JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 rolled by (and as I wiped the sweat from my brow) was whether or not too much of a good thing is a bad thing here.  The film careens towards a superb final showdown between Wick and the Marquis, which takes a definitive page from Western film iconography, but affectionately so (plus, it all culminates with a stunning sense of closure and a legitimate ending that feels more than satisfactorily earned, which is more than I can say for many other action franchises multiple films deep).  And, again, the mesmerizing symphony of violent standoffs between Wick and his prey that spills directly into the film's finale will become a benchmark for future directors of the genre to aspire to (the JOHN WICK films deserve big screen consumption to properly take them in and illicit a sense of genuine awe and wonder in their sights).  But, yes, even I have to concede that JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 was maybe 20-30 minutes too long and somewhat jettisoned the clear and concise straightforwardness of the original's lean and mean 95 minutes.  However, I can appreciate the sheer ambitious of this film and the throw-caution-the-the-wind willingness of the makers here to go big, or go home, not to mention that - in the end - this sequel wholeheartedly delivers on its intended promises...and then some.  

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 is a slightly lesser installment when compared to the last three.  Still, its unwieldy length is a minor grievance, because this film - in tandem with the other sequels as a whole - all but confirms JOHN WICK as an easy contender for the greatest modern action franchise of all time.  I simply can't name another that has maintained such a consistent high qualitative standard from first entry through multiple sequels, and with most of the sequels topping their predecessors.  

As an assault on the senses, this series has few equals.  Just prepare your body ahead of time.  It will ache for a week after seeing it.

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