Based on statistics that I can in no way verify, if the internet counters are accurate, the total amount of kills in the John Wick franchise (at least before its latest entry, John Wick: Chapter 4) stands at 299. That’s important, because the 300th kill is a significant one, and sets the events of the new film in motion.
When last we saw John Wick (Keanu Reeves), he was wounded and once again excommunicated from the High Table, shot off the roof of the Continental by Winston (Ian McShane) and now in league with the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and at war with the entire criminal underworld. Wick has been a thorn in the Table’s side for far too long, and now they must take drastic steps.
To that end, the High Table sends a Harbinger (Clancy Brown) to act as the arbiter of the Table’s rules, and sends the Marquis (Bill Skarsgard) as its instrument and tool to bring John Wick down by any means necessary.
In this phantom world of rules and consequences, John Wick is still looking for a way out, and the High Table has no compunctions in bringing people from Wick’s past as leverage and as a threat, including Caine (Donnie Yen), Wick’s friend and colleague, and a deadly assassin with equal skills and abilities. Caine is blind, and lives for his daughter, but when she is threatened by the Table, Caine must cross blades with Wick if she is to be freed.
There is also Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada), the manager of the Osaka Continental, and his concierge/daughter Akira (Rina Sawayama), who are willing to risk everything in helping Wick.
Outside of Wick’s circle, there is the Tracker (Shamier Anderson), who shares John’s fondness for dogs, but whose loyalties are otherwise uncertain and who has an uncanny ability to find John Wick wherever he may be. The world is closing in on John Wick, and he is running out of time and options.
This franchise has come a long way from its humble beginnings. That first film was a stripped down revenge story, punctuated by some very playful action cinematography. Each film afterwards has upped the scale and expanded the world, and now, with the latest entry, we cross continents, exploring iconic locations (and seeing a lot of people die in them).
I miss the smaller films, but I also appreciate how this story got bigger with each subsequent entry while still staying true to the roots. These films are showcases for well-orchestrated action setpieces, and each one complements the previous one and raises the stakes.
Still, much of John Wick: Chapter 4 feels like wheel spinning. We’ve seen Wick take out hundreds of people before, and so much of the plot only serves to set up more action. But when the action gets repetitive — you can see Keanu Reeves shoot only so many people in the head before it gets stale — it’s difficult to care about what’s happening, and the new characters vary in quality and in importance.
Too much of the film’s first half has Wick playing a game of fetch – so many modern blockbusters now seem to fill themselves with side quests as if they were video games instead of story progression, and this entry, with its nearly three-hour runtime, spends an awful lot of time following Wick as he chases some person or object. The movie feels long, and one wonders if it could have been tightened up in the editing room.
As Big Bads go, Bill Skarsgard’s Marquis isn’t as strong as previous entries, but he does something in the film’s opening minutes that will have audiences loathing him. We aren’t privy to every rule and situation regarding the High Table, but the Marquis has been given carte blanche to use everything at his disposal to stop John Wick, including increasing his contract and bringing in some heavy hitters, including the Harbinger, played with finality by Clancy Brown.
What I do appreciate is Reeves’ and Chad Stahelski‘s insistence on bringing some fine action legends into the mix, and showing audiences who may not be overly familiar with them some wonderful martial arts and action. Donnie Yen, of course, is a legend, and I loved how Yen doesn’t play the clichéd blind assassin stereotype. Yen is often as hilarious as he is threatening, and the movie picks it up a few notches when he’s onscreen.
But John Wick: Chapter 4 also brings us other international performers like Scott Adkins and Marko Zaror, two fantastic action stars who should be getting far more attention, though action movie aficionados have been gleefully following their careers for many years now. It’s refreshing to see them here – Adkins, especially, gets to cackle and ham it up as a Russian mobster, and even while wearing a fat suit manages to be a formidable opponent.
I was getting frustrated with just how much of John Wick: Chapter 4 repeats itself and previous entries – that is, until the film’s second half, which is such audacious and exciting action as I’ve seen in a long time. Comparisons to the heyday of John Woo are not inaccurate; as we see Wick fight his way through Paris, we get three incredible sequences, including two at famous landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Sacre Coeur stairs.
The filmmakers throw everything on screen, and my frustrations with the film disappeared; it’s safe to say that in my years of appreciating action cinema, I’ve never seen shootouts like these before. Inspired by Hong Kong cinema, open-world video games, and the tenacity of one Keanu Reeves, the second half of John Wick: Chapter 4 is an action movie lover’s dream, and worth the opening night ticket.
Will we see more John Wick movies in the future? Hard to say. While I’m certain that the world created here will live on in movies and television, we’ll just have to see how much damage Keanu Reeves is willing to endure for him to make another one. He’s no spring chicken – as a fellow Gen X’er I can appreciate just how hard these movies are to make, especially physically.
But with John Wick: Chapter 4 it’s safe to say they leave everything on the floor for this one. While I wish the first half were more compelling, director Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves give us a strong, wild finish, well worth seeing. This one enters the pantheon of great action cinema, next to Hard Boiled, The Raid, and Mad Max: Fury Road.
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 REVIEW SCORE: 8.5 OUT OF 10
Lionsgate will release John Wick: Chapter 4 in theaters on Thursday, March 23. The film is rated R for pervasive strong violence and some language.