They should have left the damn puppy alone. Instead, a group of sneering Russian thugs stole John Wick's car and killed the little beagle his late wife had just gifted him, kickstarting a Wick-iverse so bloody and baroque that it has chapters.
What began as an enjoyably low-stakes standalone on Keanu Reeves' long resumé nearly a decade ago has slowly transmogrified into an elaborate mythology of High Tables, gold medallions, and international murder hotels — one that has unexpectedly given its now-58-year-old star an entire second midlife franchise outside The Matrix (or a third, if three Bill and Teds 30 years apart count).
John Wick: Chapter 4, in theaters March 24, does not let a good concept rest; at 169 minutes, it is by far the longest installment to date, and easily the most relentless. As a moviegoing experience, it is also patently ridiculous and mostly very fun: the platonic ideal of a globe-hopping meatbag action thriller taken to its gloriously illogical extreme.
As 4 opens, Reeves' Wick is still persona non grata after his transgressions in Chapter 3 — labeled "excommunicado" for the unauthorized killing of a High Table crime lord and sent off a rooftop to certain death for his sins. But wounds heal, and villains reappear. Or are simply replaced, Hydra-like, by another Very Bad Man: this time in the form of It's Bill Skarsgård as the preening Marquis de Gramont, a fussy French dandy who roams through his various chateaux in Little Lord Fauntleroy suits of tailored silk and velvet, plotting inscrutable chaos.
The Marquis wants John dead again (does it really matter why?), and so he has put a price on his head that dozens of Wick's fellow contract killers happily clamber to claim. Some, though, remain loyal allies, like the stalwart hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane) and fallen High Table boss the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, in a glorified cameo). There's also his erstwhile associate Caine (Hong Kong legend Donnie Yen), an unflappably dapper blind assassin whose supposed disability only seems to make him more deadly.
After a brief, splattery sojourn in the Middle East, Wick goes looking for safe haven in the Tokyo hotel of one of those old friends, Shimazu (Bullet Train's great Hiroyuki Sanada). Shimazu gamely offers shelter and the wet-work services of his best men, though his daughter Akira (pop singer Rina Sawayama, who nimbly steals several scenes) desperately wants this interloper out; she knows that everything John touches tends to end in the morgue.
And she's not wrong; as Wick carves a path of stoic destruction across several continents, the series' longtime director Chad Stahelski, once Reeves' Matrix stand-in and stunt coordinator, gets down to the business of what he does best: creative kills, far-flung zip codes, incalculable body counts. Having set a certain bar over several films now — bathhouse bloodbaths, horse kung-fu, motorcycle sword fights on the Brooklyn Bridge — he seems to have had his id (or at least his location budget) unleashed in 4's many tableaus.
Murray Close/Lionsgate Keanu Reeves in 'John Wick: Chapter 4.'
There are monumental sequences in a manicured Japanese garden and a towering industrial nightclub in Berlin; a logistically impossible brawl in the midst of whizzing traffic at the Arc de Triomphe and another on a steep Parisian staircase that serves more like a Jacob's Ladder for doomed would-be assassins. (That it also becomes incidental slapstick feels like a bonus, intentional or not.)
It's all alternately dazzling and numbing, a careening jamboree of casual homicide and constant sensory stimulation that rarely stops for anything as quotidian as a snack or a nap. (In fact Wick neither sleeps nor eats at any point on screen; revenge is a dish with its own dark nutrients, apparently.) A grieving widower since the first installment, John also makes no attempts at romance; he may learn to love another dog — this one has a jaunty German shepherd — but his human heart belongs to the dearly departed Mrs. Wick.
So how does nearly three hours of wham-bam noise and nonsense, unmitigated by any meaningful plot, work as well as it does? Reeves, whose Zen-lord persona seems to bespeak some innate, unwavering kindness, has always been an unlikely action star, somehow conscripted into alpha-supreme status against his will. His Wick is prolific but never a sadist; he kills — quickly and cleanly for the most part, though he's not above a brutal taste of bibliography — because he must. (There's a tender, goofy interplay too with the costars he allows to live, particularly Yen.)
On the rare occasion that Wick speaks on screen, he often sounds like John Wayne slowed down to 33 rpms, every word a heavy boulder pushed painfully, manfully up a hill. ("I'm going. To kill. Them all.") In a packed New York screening room, those stoned-loris line deliveries drew loud hoots and guffaws from the audience — though they also screamed with astonished glee every time he endured some impossible feat of pain or gravity and then, like a champion Chumbawumba, got back up again.
There's something ineffable in Reeves that you can't help but root for: the unbearable lightness of being Keanu, whether he's playing a stone-cold assassin, a surfing detective, or a cyberpunk hacker messiah. Once 4's scores are settled and untold collateral damage duly done, the future of the franchise is left in serious doubt, give or take the implications of a teasing post-credits scene — even as a spin-off headlined by Ana de Armas has reportedly already wrapped. Like James Bond, John Wick may eventually transcend the idea of just one man. But it wouldn't be quite the same without him. Grade: B