The John Wick universe exists in an augmented reality. So does every movie, to an extent, but John Wick represents a growing trend in films that design their internal logic and visual language on the experience of playing a video game. It seems that the main character is immortal, but perhaps what we’re witnessing is an action game where the main character dies a lot, we just don’t see the part where he restarts the level with progress saved. There are moments, in the latest film, where characters dodge bullets at point-blank range by moving slightly. One baddie blocks a bullet with his bicep. The only explanation we’re given is the characters wear bulletproof suits. In a hilarious visual, the titular Wick (mid gun fight) covers his face with his blazer, then shoots one of his adversaries practically blindfolded.
That is John Wick in a nutshell – an egregiously over the top action franchise that functions as not a subversion, but an embrace of one of the genre’s most enduring cliches: the Invincible Man vs the world. The action movies of the 80s and 90s were eventually mocked for such a brazen hyper-reality, but John Wick succeeds by doubling down on the trope and daring you to complain about it. Thus, Wick (Keanu Reeves) functions as some type of combination of Goku, Doctor Manhattan, Pre-Crisis Superman, Mid-Crisis Mr. Incredible, Masked Lebron, 2019 Messi, 2007 John Cena, peak Anderson Silva, and daddy Cronos. However, that still leaves him a little bit short of One Punch Man.
John Wick: Chapter 4 picks up where Parabellum left off, with Mr. Wick and the fabled High Table continuing the path of their inevitable collision course. Here, one of the High Table’s senior members (Bill Skarsgård) has had enough of Wick’s unfettered chaos, choosing to enact a multi-layered bounty on the vengeful assassin. As a result, we’ve fully progressed in the story to where Wick’s adversaries have more reason to murder him than the other way around, a gradual but now complete inversion of the original film. However, it’s not as simple as various assassins just taking their shots at this unkillable machine. There’s friendships, greed, and hidden agendas at play, leading to an unexpected dilemma – it isn’t should we kill John Wick, but when is the right time to kill John Wick?
It’s an understatement to say the villains in this franchise, thus far, have been very forgettable. Just generic, young, arrogant, wealthy wannabe gangsters cut out of the B movie mold. In many ways, Marchese de Gramont (Skarsgård) represents some of those traits. Yet, he adds sociopathic intrigue to the mix. His portrayal is almost that of a Bond villain, and it’s interesting seeing that type of bad guy brush up with the gritty noir environment of the John Wick films. In summation, Gramont is still merely a destination for the protagonist to get to, a common scenario in this quadrilogy, only Skarsgård makes the routine feel more fun with petulant menace. But his performance is nearly overshadowed by his wardrobe – my man’s suits shine like they have their own light bill, he’s out-dressing everyone out here! Donnie Yen arguably steals the show as a blind fighter with a tangled relationship to seemingly every major player involved here. Yen’s scenes with Reeves make up the backbone of the movie, as their relationship alternates between break-neck fighting or quiet moments of conversation. I wish we could just get more of these two actors together in movies, as the chemistry is outrageous.
Unlike the previous sequels, which have started off with a bang, 4 takes its time for the fireworks to go off. But when they do, this is the most impressive action we’ve seen in the entire franchise. Many of the chess pieces assemble at a prestigious Continental, leading to an onslaught of masterful setpieces. If you’re wondering why this movie needed to be 3 hours, it’s to allow moments like these to breathe. It feels like 30 straight minutes of director Chad Stahelski just cooking, stacking one epic fight on top of each other. Just when you think the movie’s action has peaked, the next fight tops it about 30 seconds later.
But it isn’t plotless violence; it’s earned by way of the groundwork laid in the story, providing the context for why everyone is cracking each other’s skulls. Truthfully, I’d be pretty impressed if someone could recite to me every plot detail that happened in the last two John Wick films, but the story here sticks to the brain a little better because the supporting players actually have motivations worth remembering. Its world feels more tangible, weaving various eccentric characters in a way that a lot of superhero movies could learn from. Chief among these weirdos is Killa (Scott Adkins), who takes over every scene he’s in as some sort of hysterical cross between the Penguin and the Kingpin. I’m deeply entertained by the performances of Shamier Anderson, Rina Sawayama, and Hiroyuki Sanada, who aren’t always in the spotlight, but make the most of each second on-screen. Ian McShane is as debonair as always, while Lawrence Fishburne chews the scenery with glee, even as his dialogue is mostly nonsense.
I enjoy the super-sized nature of the movie’s objective: take everything you like about these movies, and do the best version of these moments. John Wick redefined fight scenes in nightclub settings? Well, we’re going to do that better than you’ve ever seen. In fact, the most realistic scene in the film is built around an incredibly violent fight in the middle of a rave, but the attendants are Just. Too. Fucked. Up. by whatever they’ve ingested in the last 3 hours to give a damn about their lives being endangered. You want to see gun-fu and duels with samurai swords? You get that till your heart’s content. You want to witness a blind warrior have some of the coolest battles you’ll see from the visually impaired? We have that in spades. Did you adore seeing characters fall down the stairs in John Wick: Chapter 2? If so, your ass is in luck.
Just when you think we’ve worn out all the samurai and martial arts cliches, out of nowhere the movie throws a well-earned callback to the Western right at your head. Does Stahelski and his crew like video games? They clearly do, here’s an awesome overhead shot of John Wick wasting guys as if you’re watching gameplay for Grand Theft Auto or Hitman. An actual question I asked about the title character while watching this movie: how many times is he going to get run over? Yet, we actually see Wick get progressively better with fighting traffic, so much that he uses it as an advantage against his less experienced foes. It’s as if he died, came back, and brought his newfound knowledge to beat the level and inch closer to the final boss.
Overall, this movie is just… fun. Dangerously so. For, it’s very important that franchises should know when it’s the right time to call it quits. But movies like John Wick: Chapter 4 make farewell a hard choice to consider. It’s the best movie in the franchise, comfortably so, out-dueling its predecessors with more daring ambition and greater precision. It’s the type of movie that makes fans want to see 3 more movies in the series, even as we know the premise will likely lose steam over time. The John Wick character is an exaggerated version of the myth of Keanu Reeves’ public persona. That myth is a guy with seemingly limitless fighting ability and stamina. That guy says every line like he’s both shy AND partially annoyed, but you can’t tell which emotion is winning out. But the guy also has a battered heart, and like the real Keanu: it is the numerous losses and tragedies that underline the masculine heroics. How far can such pain take a man? Is this positioned as Mr. Wick’s curtain call, perhaps a way to give him a satisfying conclusion for his blood-stained journey? The movie can only partially answer that. For regardless of how Chapter 4 ends, you still come away wanting to see the Baba Yaga for a 5th round.