The air was charged at a recent screening of John Wick: Chapter 4. The thronged darkness buzzed with chatter and the occasional whoop. A man said to his friend that he was looking forward to a lot of “headshots”. When John Wick (Keanu Reeves) first shows himself in profile, delivering his patented “Yeah”—pained and elongated, the resigned sigh of the warrior monk hauled once more by box office demand into the bloody breach—cheers came in response. They had seen Wick before and now wanted to see him do his thing again, but more so. We all did.
John Wick: Chapter 4 accepted this challenge with a gusto pitched at the opposite extreme from Wick’s mournful stoicism. He goes about his work of killing the killers who want to kill him for killing the wrong person two films ago with a tradesman’s steady professionalism. Wick delivers no sneers or quips as he mows down the opposition, though he gets ingenious at times. Facing one fast-moving gunman, Wick sticks a knife through the man’s leg, pinning him to a wall to make putting a bullet in his head a little easier. Facing another, after realizing his handgun is empty, Wick just throws it at the man he was trying to shoot. Much of John Wick: Chapter 4 proceeds like this: just when things are getting repetitive, Wick breaks out a new way of doing damage.
At certain moments, after Wick has just easily taken out another six or twelve assailants, it can all start to feel like a bad idea. The implacable hero mowing down henchmen to get to the one true villain was already a staple when Lee Marvin (as Walker) perfected it in John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank. Even though this series had already made Wick’s “unkillability” an inside joke, the extent of his death-dealing in John Wick: Chapter 4 would make John Woo blanch. What was the alternative? The options given to action franchises past the third outing are generally these: World expansion with new characters and plots, maximalist repetition, or some kind of back-to-basics callback. So the filmmakers went with the middle one. And then some.
Where did we leave our stoic hero in John Wick 3: Parabellum? If memory and a quick scan of this critic’s review serve, he was “excommunicado” after killing a crime boss unforgivably high up the chain of command. Because the universe in the John Wick series is seemingly occupied only by killers for hire and their Borgia-like criminal overlords, that means Wick has hundreds of pursuers angling for the $14 million bounty. The chase is still on in John Wick: Chapter 4, only with a much higher bounty. (This setup suggests an economic conundrum: Given the market saturation of trained assassins, it seems prices would go down rather than up.)
Having survived getting shot off a roof by supposed ally Winston (Ian McShane) at the end of John Wick 3: Parabellum, Wick is running out of hiding places. For reasons that never made sense, the Marquis (Bill Skarsgard)—the new head of this world’s not-so-secret assassins’ society—has decided to make an example of Wick. As a result, each time Wick reaches out to one of his dwindling circle of friends for help, the Marquis goes scorched earth in response.
John Wick: Chapter 4 nearly peaks early on when Wick seeks help from Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada). Proprietor of the Osaka branch of the Continental, the films’ gloriously imagined hotel chain that provides five-star service and a no-shooting-allowed neutral ground for killers needing a place to sleep and reload, Shimazu barely has time to consider Wick’s request before a brigade of the Marquis’ soldiers appears. The resulting hotel-wide shootout is remarkable on multiple levels that have little to do with the still-impressive choreography. Director Chad Stahelski, who started as a stuntman, avoids the common mistake of modern filmmakers addicted to frenzied editing by framing complex action scenes in wide shots that give full attention to the intricate ballet of limbs, blades, and guns. The cherry blossoms, smears of red neon, and minimally elegant luxury decor backgrounding the action suggest the House of Blue Leaves restaurant scene from Tarantino’s 2003 Kill Bill: Vol. 1 as rendered by Architectural Digest.
This sequence also introduces John Wick: Chapter 4’s strongest supporting players. As he showed in David Leitch’s 2022 comedy thriller Bullet Train, where he was pretty much the only performer who didn’t go full wink-wink-isn’t-this-cute, Sanada exudes a deeply empathic world-weariness that serves here as the regal flipside to Wick’s grungier brand of Zen. Also in the mix is Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind assassin and onetime friend of Wick’s, who is blackmailed into service by the Marquis’ threat against Caine’s daughter. Yen’s occasional snap of dark wit and off-kilter fighting style that involves feeling his way with a silver-topped cane bring a welcome lightness.
Despite their work, and that of the always-welcome Laurence Fishburne and Clancy Brown as shadowy adjutants, much of John Wick: Chapter 4 is a long, dutiful, and ultimately tiresome march to a showdown that could have been handled just fine in John Wick 3: Parabellum. As a nearly three hours long assassins’ battle royale, the film has many editing room floor candidates. For example, a pointless fight in a nightclub seems predicated on two assumptions: giving a villain (Scott Adkins) a fat suit and tacky gold teeth is funny, and Berlin club kids are so entranced by EDM they cannot stop dancing even when someone only steps away takes an axe to the face. Even the initially inventive and gymnastic melee on the Parisian staircase leading up to the Basilica of Sacré Coeur doesn’t know when to stop.
To some degree, neither does Wick. His purgatorial slog was exhausting even for the hyped-up screening audience, who seemed more downcast than exhilarated by the end.
While altogether too much and showing the limit of what even the compellingly watchable Keanu can do, John Wick: Chapter 4 still contains glimmers of what has kept the series from fully mechanistic mayhem. There are neat touches, like Wick’s snappy Kevlar-lined suits and his habit of sidling up on an enemy while protecting himself by holding up the bulletproof jacket, forearm to forehead, like a pistol-packing Dracula. The stunts remain mostly grounded, unlike other franchises desperately trying to outdo themselves; no leaping from helicopters (ala Mission: Impossible) or driving a car to outer space (Fast and Furious … 9?). The luminous cinematography packages the increasingly fantastic John Wick story in a world of baroque interiors, byzantine rituals, and elaborate subcultures.
Nevertheless, questions remain. For example, given Wick’s wicked ability to storm up close and gun-fu anybody within 20 feet, wouldn’t the Marquis just put all his (apparently unlimited) resources into killing Wick at a distance? Heavy artillery, drones, mines, snipers; these all seem better options than human wave attacks. But in the immortal words of John Ford, who, when asked why the Indians in his 1939 western, Stagecoach, didn’t just shoot the stagecoach horses, answered, “Because that would have been the end of the movie.”