‘John Wick: Chapter 4’ Review: Keanu Attains Action Nirvana
Look, let’s just put all our cards on the (high) table. Yes, John Wick: Chapter 4 is 169 minutes long. Any one of its many (many) set pieces contains more action all by itself than most entire movies. This thing ain’t a “chapter.” It’s a whole damn book — a glorious, nightmarish, biblical compendium of all manners of asskickery.
The creative team, headed by longtime franchise director Chad Stahelski, managed to top the scale of John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, which in turn raised the stakes of John Wick: Chapter 2, which was already a pretty sizable step up from the original John Wick, which was a comparatively humble thriller about a retired hitman on a quest for revenge against the jerks who killed his beloved puppy. In its first hour alone, John Wick: Chapter 4 globetrots from New York to Paris to Osaka — with a brief pitstop in the Sahara desert. Along the way, it includes chases on horseback, shootouts, sword battles, and the occasional tussle with nunchucks. Again, this is just the first hour.
If that sounds good to you, terrific! Go see John Wick: Chapter 4 with confidence. However, if the prospect of a near-three-hour Keanu kerfuffle sounds like an ordeal — your choice is clear: Do not go. What you should not do is go see John Wick: Chapter 4 and then complain that is too long. Why is it three hours long? Why does Gene Kelly sing and dance in the rain? Why does Ferris Bueller break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience? We go to the movies to see the inexplicable and the incredible. Such sublime moments require no justification beyond the pleasure they provide to viewers. And if you like action movies, John Wick: Chapter 4 will give you a lot of pleasure — literally, as roughly half of this three hour fever dream of a movie is fight scenes of various kinds.
All of it centers around John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a man of few words and many bullets. (Even though Chapter 4 is the longest John Wick by far, Reeves might actually have fewer lines in it than in any of the previous films.) Wick’s ongoing war with the “High Table” that controls the criminal underworld reaches its apex here, with a sadistic Marquis (Bill Skarsgard) sending seemingly endless waves of thugs to take down Wick. Meanwhile, Wick uses his seemingly unlimited ability to kill people to strike back at the Marquis.
As always in the John Wick universe, the story is incredibly simple, but the mythology surrounding it is amusingly complex. There are codes of honor to be adhered to, bounties to be collected, debts to be repaid, and lavish underworld hotels to be explored. This time out, Wick relies on the hospitality of an old friend in Osaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), and battles another former ally all over the globe, an assassin named Caine (Donnie Yen) whose name alludes to the violent, brotherly bond between he and John Wick. (It’s also a playful wink at the fact that Caine is blind; in between outlandish bursts of athletic martial arts, he relies on his cane — which naturally doubles as a sword when needed — to help him get around.)
Like John Wick, Caine tried to leave the life of an assassin behind, but he accepts the contract on Wick’s life to in order to protect his daughter. And in between the prolonged bursts of extravagant violence, Chapter 4 includes many discussions about the nature of loyalty, honor, duty, redemption, spirituality, and even the meaning of life itself.
For all the complaints this movie is sure to encounter for its over-the-top runtime, it suits the film, which is also about the passage of time. An early scene hinges on the use of a comically oversized hourglass. (Look closely at the film’s poster, and you’ll notice that it replaces his tie with an hour glass full of bullets.) Later, a big action sequence takes place around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which John Wick circles in a muscle car like the swooping hands of a clock. A few scenes later, John frantically checks his own wristwatch over and over as he races to an important meeting. Time is slipping away for poor old John Wick.
That looming sense of finality is only enhanced by the scope of the action, which sees Wick battling dozens (or hundreds?) of men in close combat, with his fists, pistols, blades, and occasionally a rifle that shoots explosive rounds. (That’s gotta hurt.) All of these fights are staged for maximum clarity, with takes that occasionally stretch on for minutes at a time. (There’s that time theme again.) Reeves’ dedication to doing most of his own stunt work remains impressive, especially since he’s now pushing 60 years old. One mind-boggling sequence adopts as God’s eye view of the proceedings as John Wick battles an entire army of baddies in an abandoned building, a symbolic echo of the themes about heaven and hell that permeate the story.
At this point in the John Wick saga, spatial coherence is far more important than narrative logic. Wick is pursued endlessly around the planet, with dudes popping up around every corner, then he somehow jumps on a plane and flies to the next location for more fighting. Rules regarding the High Table are made in one scene and broken the next. The John Wick franchise left the recognizable real world behind several movies ago; it now exists in a dreamlike, neon-lit purgatory seemingly devoid of any government or police. (The only laws are the ones set down by the High Table, which has apparently controls a world economy built entirely on murder for hire.)
Again, I am certain people will complain that the movie is absurd, that it’s got too much stuff, that it doesn’t need half this many action scenes. To which I would reply: Go see another movie that is not John Wick. These movies take their craft as seriously as John Wick takes his. One series of shots in Chapter 4 I will not spoil made me happier than any sequence I have seen in a movie theater in months and months. (It involves John Wick and a stairwell, but that is all I will say.) I go to the movies for a living chasing the high; the kind of cinematic ecstasy only a unique moment can give you. For a couple seconds, John Wick achieved that euphoric state of action nirvana. John Wick may be looking for a way into heaven. Action fans don’t need to look any further for that than this movie.