The Pitch: Nobody will leave poor John Wick alone! The prolifically murderous hitman (Keanu Reeves, of course) has found himself embroiled in another mega-scaled battle of 3D chess, where the royal pieces belong to a nefarious criminal organization called The High Table, and the pawns are a bunch of jabronis we have fun watching John Wick obliterate.
This time around, our main foe is the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård, doing unfortunate accent work), The High Table’s foppish frontman who ain’t afraid to use and destroy anyone or anything to get what he wants — the head of Mr. Wick, natch. Beyond the typical “offering every hitman in the universe multiple millions of dollars,” he’s collected an eclectic group of rogues to snatch Wick or get snatched themselves, including blind swordsman and Wick’s old friend Caine (the always delightful Donnie Yen) and the dog-loving, mysterious marksman Tracker (Shamier Anderson).
Among all this mayhem, John Wick just might see a bright light leading him out of this underground tunnel. But is a life of peace even a life, when it comes to the man known as Baba Yaga?
Old Dogs: John Wick: Chapter 4, written by Chapter 3 co-writer Shay Hatten and action journeyman Michael Finch, suggests the titular assassin is stuck in an ouroboros of violence. Characters constantly insist to his face that his freedom isn’t possible, that his purpose isn’t to eventually stop killing but to make sure he’s only killing.
It’s an interesting thematic thrust for the fourth part in the unexpected action franchise, one that even flirts with being self-critical of the action franchise apparatus itself (criticism generally being communicated via blunt, inorganic speeches; the inverse of “show, don’t tell”).
Unfortunately, this thematic thrust — a violent, atrophying repetition as raison d’être — seems to have seeped into, and gummed up, the otherwise reliably entertaining visual and physical construction of the film’s essential setpieces. These sequences play without dynamics, heightening, climax, or any other traditionally satisfying element of visual storytelling. Instead, components of combat — whether a point-blank gunshot, cruiserweight wrestling flip, or “dog eating a bad guy’s nuts” — repeat over and over again, with barely any relationship to the previous piece of combat we just witnessed.
Granted, returning director Chad Stahelski, DP Dan Lausten (John Wicks 2-3), editor Nathan Orloff (Ghostbusters: Afterlife), and the entire stunt team remain profound professionals at the art of violent clarity (even if much of the film’s mise-en-scene is cribbed from genre masters like John Woo or Walter Hill).
Fights play in beautiful wides and mediums, with a few more beats of choreography than we expected occurring in a shot before cutting. The color schemes provide jaw-dropping, neon-LED-soaked frames of impeccable style — cross that with Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard’s bumping score, and you’ll think you’re at a rave before you get to the literal rave. And every sequence, no matter how tedious it ultimately becomes, yields at least one audacious, even hilarious wheelie pop of invention.
It’s just that these sequences don’t orient themselves around these wheelie pops so much as stumble around them. The third act features multiple setpieces stacked atop each other, and there are two in particular that feature tricks I’ve never quite seen in an action flick before (one made me astonished in awe, one made me double over in laughter). But to return to this same trick seconds later, let alone ending these setpieces with an anticlimax instead of these enormous moments, indicates that final lack of shape that would’ve made the whole film soar where it should.
New Tricks: Chapter 4 does soar when new performers get a chance to strut their stuff. The aforementioned Donnie Yen positions himself as the perfect foil to Reeves: Despite an underbaked but primal motivation (help the Marquis or he’ll kill your daughter!), Yen imbues the picture with a welcome sense of charisma, heart, and soul.
Beyond his stunning, effortless performance of fight choreography, Yen gives this character a sense of confidence, emotional commitment, and even fun that contrasts John “Eternal Grimace” Wick to the film’s pervasive benefit — let alone what it implies for a future spin-off film centered around Yen’s Caine. And speaking of “obvious set-ups for future spin-off films”…
Rina Sawayama is one of my favorite contemporary pop stars; now, after her feature acting debut, she’s efficiently become one of my favorite contemporary screen actors! Sawayama plays Akira, the concierge for the Osaka Continental hotel who has a fraught relationship with John Wick and the High Table, all centered around her father, the owner of the hotel played by the always-welcome Hiroyuki Sanada.