It’s odd to wax poetic about an overblown action spectacle, but “John Wick: Chapter 4” is wildly thrilling and mesmerizing from the word go.
In this chapter, our hero’s quest has him traversing the globe from Germany to Japan to France and New York. So, allow me to sum up my feelings using the language of the film. Mein Gott. Waga Kamiyo. Mon Dieu. My God!
Some will argue that John Wick 4 is too much — too long, too overblown, too chaotic.
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Perhaps. But when that thing is as satisfying, joy-inducing, visually intoxicating, and infectiously riotous as John Wick 4, it’s difficult to concede that this exercise in overindulgence is anything other than glorious.
Three hours of nonstop, balls-to-the-wall, dizzying action — and very little else, including actual plot or dialogue — sounds exhausting. And in any less capable hands, it certainly would be. But in the hands of the mind-blowingly gifted stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski, returning writer Shay Hatten and co-writer Michael Finch, and the Baba Yaga himself, cool-as-a-cucumber Keanu Reeves, it’s a magnum opus.
There’s no way John Wick should still be alive, not after the way Chapter 3 ended. And let’s face it; any normal man wouldn’t have even made it that far. But back he is and, dare I say it, better than ever.
And if you think he walked through the fires of hell and back in the first three films, wait until you see the reign of absolute holy terror he’s facing this time around. It’s enough to bring the gods themselves to their knees.
But John Wick is no god… he’s just a man.
And yet, somehow, he’s so much more.
What is he really? An indestructible superhero without any actual powers except the power of incomparable badassery. He’s Batman. And as cool as Batman is — the Dark Knight of Cool — John Wick is even cooler.
I said it. And I don’t regret it.
All he ever wanted was a quiet, blissful little life with his loving wife and his beloved pup. Sadly, that wasn’t in the cards. So, with his hopes for any kind of real happiness long dashed, now all he wants is peace. He wants to live out his remaining sad, lonely years free from his forced servitude to death and destruction.
With a multi-million-dollar bounty on his head (it will escalate to a whopping $40 million by the end of the film), Wick — with some help from the Bowery King, a consistently reliable Laurence Fishburne — decides to go on the offense and try to free himself from under the heel of The High Table once and for all.
As Wick heads to Morocco to demand his freedom from High Table royalty, Winston (the stellar Ian McShane) is being severely reprimanded for his ties to John by the Table’s fiendish frontman, the Marquis (a scenery-chewing Bill Skarsgård).
Alongside Winston is his right-hand man, Charon (fan favorite Lance Reddick, who sadly passed away days after the SXSW screening on March 17th). And a devastating price must be paid.
Meanwhile, John has just poked the already enraged hornet’s nest.
Marquis taps an elite assassin to extract the thorn from his side, a blind assassin named Caine (martial arts superstar Donnie Yen). A longtime friend of John, he tries to refuse the assignment, but Marquis threatens to kill Caine’s daughter unless Caine kills John.
With a horde of assassins hot on his heels — including Caine and a freelance operative known as the Tracker (Shamier Anderson), whose lethal and loyal companion is a beautiful Belgian Shepherd — John heads to Osaka to a hotel managed by an old friend, Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada).
There, he learns about the fallout in New York and vows to seek revenge.
Shimazu’s daughter, Akira (the acting debut of Rina Sawayama), fears for the safety of her father and everyone at the hotel once Wick arrives — and not without good reason. Trouble seems to follow him wherever he goes.
So it’s no surprise when hellfire rains down on Osaka.
After the carnival of carnage, John heads to New York to see Winston, who advises him there might be a way to end his damnation. If he challenges the Marquis to a duel, John can win his freedom and get out clean and clear.
Sounds easy enough for a man of Wick’s special talents, but the river of shit he must wade through to reach the final boss is brutal and boundless.
Along the impossible road to salvation, he must battle an onslaught of bounty-chasing assassins and hired guns, face off against the lovable but lethal Caine, make amends with his tribal Russian family, evade the Tracker, and quite literally slay the giant — a hulking beast of a man named Killa (played by martial arts star Scott Adkins, under heavy prosthetics and a fat suit).
Though I surely lost count while watching, there are apparently fourteen elaborate action sequences; fourteen!
All of them are wildly entertaining.
A few of them are so jaw-droppingly spectacular that they will leave you absolutely gob-smacked. After each one, I wondered how the hell they pulled off such a masterful feat and made it look so damned effortless.
It’s not just gun-fu and sword-fu; it’s ballet. It’s set pieces that feel like art installations.
It’s ultra-violence, to the point of cartoonish exaggeration, infused with incredible grace, beauty, and style. It’s a dichotomy that shouldn’t work. And yet, work it does. It works so well that you almost feel compelled to clap and cheer wildly after each action sequence as if you’ve just witnessed a breathtaking Cirque de Soleil performance.
At my SXSW screening, during the film’s North American premiere, that’s exactly what my audience did. It was electric. That audience radiated with pure joy, affection, and enthusiasm — absolutely ravenous for every sizzling hot dish Stahelski served up.
I wish everyone could experience the magic of this film with that kind of kinetic energy. It’s intoxicating and infectious. But my hope is that, based on the film’s early reviews, many fans will find themselves seated for the theatrical experience.
Everyone should enjoy this crowd-pleasing, big-screen tableau as it’s meant to be experienced: larger than life.
I’d tell you my favorite action sequence, but I’m honestly not sure I could narrow it down.
Each time I thought we had reached the pinnacle of pageantry, the next scene would somehow raise the stakes even higher. I think my jaw may have been permanently affixed to the floor.
Though the dazzling moments were too numerous to count, there are a few scenes that stand out, permanently etched in my memory.
Among them is a heart-stopping fight in the middle of the traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, an overhead interior fight scene involving a dragon’s breath shotgun (trust me, it’s even cooler than it sounds), and a furious nightclub rave scene that’s as mesmerizing as it is merciless.
Then, of course, there’s a climactic scene on a set of outdoor stairs in Paris that will be all anyone can talk about once the film opens in theaters. It’s riveting and expertly choreographed, but it’s also hilarious without being ridiculous. It’s just the right amount of playful camp without ever losing its edge. Stahelski is a master at adeptly juggling tonal variance.
It’s truly phenomenal. You’ll see.
The final, furious race to the finish to reach the duel before sunrise results in some of the most exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat thrills in cinematic history.
But it’s not just the set pieces that impress; the entire cast is sublime.
The returning tour-de-force due of McShane and Fishburne add heart and humor to the perverse proceedings. Skarsgård delivers as a barbarous villain, a temperamental, baby-faced boy King you’ll love to hate. Adkins is as comical as he is carcinogenic, delivering some of the best dialogue and intensity of the film.
Sawayama shines in her debut, surprisingly masterful during the martial arts sequences and delivering one of the most impressive kills.
Of the newcomers, however, it is Donnie Yen who is the real standout; a stroke of casting genius. As deadly as his friend Wick, he also gives John a run for his money when he comes to cool confidence and debonair swagger. Conflicted and full of emotional gravitas, he’s wildly charismatic, charming, and captivating. I defy you not to be delighted every time this man lights up the screen.
But as furiously bright as the supporting cast shines, and trust me, they’re all superstars in their own right, this has always been and will always be the Keanu Reeves show.
And, my god, what a show it is.
He barely says a word, speaking mostly in monosyllabic retorts. But only Keanu could cause an entire theater to erupt in uproarious cheers from a single “Yeah.”
Only Keanu could ooze so much charm, warmth, and likability as an unstoppable killing machine. Only Keanu, with his brooding intensity and stoic determination, could convey so much depth, soul, and thoughtfulness while mowing down mercenaries like blades of grass.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is infinitely more relentless, over-the-top, and absolutely bonkers than the previous three films in the franchise.
And I mean that in the best possible way.
It’s a love letter to film lovers, with spot-on references to classics like The Warriors and the samurai cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
You could enjoy this film in a full-throated way without ever seeing a single John Wick film. Of course, it definitely hits harder and resonates deeper if you understand the full mythos behind the reluctant hitman and the seedy criminal overlords who rule the underground like vengeful gods perched on Mount Olympus.
And having followed John throughout his entire tumultuous journey, the ending packs a hell of an emotional punch. It’s honestly pitch-perfect. Some will take umbrage with how this chapter closes, but I can’t imagine a more poignant way to turn the page.
Many are hailing John Wick: Chapter 4 as the greatest action film of all time. That’s a hefty mantle to hoist upon any film, and it might set some unrealistic expectations to live up to. So, I’ll drop the superlatives and tell you this.
Whether or not it rises to the very top of the crop, it’s definitely in the pantheon of greatness.
If you’re going to see John Wick: Chapter 4, I assume you generally know what to expect and generally enjoy this kind of frenetic, shoot ‘em up, chop ‘em down action spectacle.
With that said, there is precious little here not to love.
The only legitimate gripe you might have is that it’s overly long, and it is.
But every minute of that runtime is filled with such artistry, passion, and commitment that it’s hard not to be transfixed. There’s not a minute of this film that drags, not a moment of frenzied madness that is anything less than hypnotic.
This is fanservice at its absolute best.
I’ll say it again. Baba Yaga is back, and he’s better than ever.