The “John Wick” franchise has evolved from a small-scale tale of revenge for the death of a wife and the killing of a do to a globe-trotting epic that spans continents, dozens of characters, and an intricate mythology. In its fourth chapter, director Chad Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves bring this franchise back to its roots while expanding the world and the story to bigger and bolder places. The result is not only the best movie in the franchise, but
After going to war with essentially the entire world, and causing the deaths of hundreds of people, “Chapter 4” finally starts pondering the question of just how far John Wick is willing to go for revenge, how many people close to him he’s willing to endanger, and whether it was all worth it. At this point, this is no longer about the killing of his wife and dog, it’s about burning down a system that always resented Wick for abandoning it.
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The problem is that now, John Wick’s friends and acquaintances are paying the price of his little insurrection. This starts with the closure and then destruction of the Continental Hotel by the enigmatic High Table, who have now resorted to hiring The Marquis. This is Bill Skarsgård doing his best French Joker, playing the Marquis as a ruthless, often hilarious, always chaotic and intelligent villain.
Like with every film in the series, “John Wick: Chapter 4” adds to its ludicrously complex mythology, introducing new rules to the High Table’s command, new sections of the franchise’s secret world of assassins, and new unique characters. There’s Shamier Anderson’s Mr. Nobody, a tracker who knows exactly where John Wick will be next but waits patiently until his bounty is large enough to be worth it to him, and who is always accompanied by a faithful (and scene-stealer) German Shepherd. While the film goes bigger in scope, it also manages to stay fairly grounded in the idea of relationships, focusing on John Wick and his allies and friends, such as Winston — who take on a larger role this time around — or Wick’s former friend, Caine.
Caine is the best character in the film, with Donnie Yen bringing his martial arts superstardom to the “John Wick” universe with an intimidating yet charismatic blind assassin with a similar backstory to Wick, who is forced to hunt him at the request of the High Table. Even when he’s not fighting, Yen steals every scene he’s in, even by just slurping on noodles while his henchmen die all around him, or when he uses Wifi-controlled doorbells to track his enemies.
Creator Derek Kolstad steps down as the screenwriter of the film, leaving scribe duties entirely to the co-writer of the previous entry in the franchise, Shay Hatten, as well as Michael Finch. Despite the long running time, “John Wick: Chapter 4” has impeccable pacing. It never drags, but feels tightly focused, and manages to develop even the new supporting cast, like Rina Sawayama’s assassin Akira — a standout — or Scott Adkins having the time of his life as a German assassin covered in heavy prosthetics. It also helps that this chapter in the story is almost non-stop action, having each of the film’s three acts revolving around breathtaking set piece after breathtaking set piece — each with its own enemies, weapons, and sets.
Indeed, the best way to describe “John Wick: Chapter 4” is that it often feels like watching “Mad Max: Fury Road” and marveling at how they pulled that movie off without killing half the crew. As mentioned, each set takes advantage of the different locations and crews to deliver wholly unique fight scenes, and like in every movie of the franchise, it continues to be a delight to see Keanu Reeves’ John Wick constantly be out of breath, knocked down, and then beaten up before he stands back up. The last arc, in particular, should be placed in the Louvre, with a fight in the middle of a transited Arc de Triomphe.
And yet, as cool as it is to see a vulnerable John Wick, he still needs a few gadgets. Clear among them, however, is his superpowered magical suit that seems to completely deflect bullets, which turns the characters into superheroes about as actually vulnerable as a cartoon character. It never stops being a bit too ridiculous to see these assassins cover their face with their suits and just not take any damage — just as John Wick is now apparently immune to pain from being hit by a car — but it is easy to let this slide when the action scenes are so good.
Returning cinematographer Dan Laustsen continues to really understand and utilize neon blues and reds, but he also gives us an incredible fight done as a one-liner with an overhead shot that makes the scene look like the “Hotline Miami” video game.
We’re four movies in, and about to get spin-offs. This is a movie that looks not forward toward some cash-grab sequel, but toward the past and how we got here. Whether he gets out alive or dead, John Wick has to start thinking about where this quest leads, where the road built on all the dead bodies he’s been laying in front of him leads. The answer is surprisingly meditative and poignant, one that makes this the most emotionally resonant movie of the franchise.
The “John Wick” saga has changed and evolved throughout the years, For this film, there is no denying how it has made Chad Stahelski one of our best action filmmakers, and how the franchise gave Keanu yet another career-redefining role. It’s been a wild ride, and one of the best and most consistent movie series ever. No matter where the roads lead, however, “I’m thinking John Wick is back.”
“John Wick: Chapter 4” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Lionsgate will release it in theaters on Friday, March 24.
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