It’s been almost 10 years since the first John Wick brought Keanu Reeves (who was one of the biggest action stars of the 90s thanks to films like Speed, Point Break, and The Matrix) back into the genre portraying one of the most cunning, brutal, and proficient assassins to ever grace the big screen. Effectively raising the bar for what one can accomplish with action when you blend a pedestrian script with world-class choreography and stylistically enamoring action scenes. John Wick, and its two sequels, proved that when it comes to making a top-of-the-line action franchise you don’t need massive set pieces or large-scale explosions to get the point across as long as you have an actor as the focal point of your movie that is so committed even a monotone delivery doubles as brooding.
While the John Wick films themselves have been going for a decade, for John Wick himself, not much time has passed since his wife died, his car was stolen, and his dog was murdered – all of which brought him out of his five-year retirement. Over the course of the three films, John Wick has had to endure almost everything imaginable: getting revenge, repaying a debt, and fighting for his life after receiving an ex-communicado contract against him. Now, with John Wick: Chapter 4, the story continues kicking off after the end of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is currently underground thanks to Bowery King (Reeves’ Matrix and John Wick co-star Lawrence Fishburne) and hidden from the High Table. After running from the Table and the ever-growing bounty on his head, he is now looking to take this organization with the plan of killing as many people as he needs to find peace. For the High Table, they are tired, not just of John Wick the person, but the idea of what he represents.
The High Table calls on Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) to be their newest representative and right away makes his presence known by destroying the New York Continental and excommunicating Hotel Manager Winston (Ian McShane). He then seeks out the help of Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind assassin and former friend of John Wick who only ever works with the High Table to protect the life of his daughter, to complete the task of killing Wick and putting an end to this madness he has created. But, there is still a bounty on his head, one that a tracker by the name of Nobody (Shamier Anderson) and his dog wants a piece of, but not until the price grows to their liking. However, through all of this bloodshed and destruction, Wick has to discover what it is exactly he is fighting for, and when exactly it will all stop.
What anyone who comes to a John Wick movie is coming for, is the action. Director, and former stuntman himself, Chad Stahelski has made it clear that these movies will be violent, bloody, and packed with as much action as one can take in a single sitting. With every new sequel, he has grown more confident to elevate the action choreography and framing by going bigger, and better, with every outing. Even at a lengthy 169 minutes, Chapter 4 never feels slow and never lets up as this is easily the biggest and most ambitious Stahelski has been in his decade of making these. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dan Lausten captures these scenes in a beautiful and visually captivating way. Sequences like a fight in a roundabout surrounded by moving vehicles, or a long take in an abandoned house prove just how far Stahelski has come as a director by cinematically pushing the boundaries of the genre. While he might expand limitations for what this genre can do, he also never forgets his predecessors that, in their own way, changed the genre. Every style of action can be found within this one movie. There is a touch of Eastern action such as Chanbara (Samurai cinema) which displays some impeccable sword fighting as well as prototypical westerns and a more modernized version that this franchise has always had a handle on.
Pulling off all these different action styles is, once again, Keanu Reeves. When the first John Wick was released, Reeves wasn’t even 50 years old, now at 58, the only part of his performance that has declined is the number of lines of dialogue he speaks, but when it comes to the physicality, he is as sharp as ever. Still doing a bulk of his own stunts, he takes easily his biggest beatings of the franchise. A lot of these are quite absurd such as him being thrown into cars, off balconies, and down flights of stairs in what looks to be severely painful ways, but just as Wick does, Reeves continues to get up and keep fighting, forever inching closer to the Baba Yaga (or Boogeyman) status he has always been given. However, despite how committed Reeves is, it’s Donnie Yen who is the standout of this film. This franchise has always had an underlying amount of emotion attached to it, but in this one the emotion is brought to the forefront and that is mostly in Yen’s performance as Caine. For the first time, the antagonist doesn’t necessarily want John Wick dead, it’s clear throughout how close of friends they were, he just wants his daughter to be safe.
Incorporating more emotional beats than the entire franchise has seen as a whole until this point was undoubtedly a risky move, but one that really put all of this into perspective. For four outings now, we have seen John Wick shoot and fight his way through every obstacle set in front of him, but never have we seen him have to actually reconcile with the damage he leaves in his wake. Co-writers Shay Hatten and Michael Finch know there is only one way this story can end, and under the Paris sunrise, with a pistol duel straight out of a western epic, for the first time, John has accepted that no matter how many people he kills, he will always be searching for inner peace.
With colorful set pieces by Kevin Kavanaugh and stunt coordinator Laurent Demianoff creating some of the best action choreography put to screen, John Wick: Chapter 4 takes everything that makes the first three films work, lengthens it, and elevates it in every possible way. Keanu Reeves and Donnie Yen steer the action, but Chad Stahelski guides the overall design in the boldest and most creative of ways. Is this one of the best action movies ever made? As John Wick would say: Yeah.
John Wick: Chapter 4 premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Lionsgate will release the film in theaters on March 24.
Photo: Murray Close