All those who have grown up watching Keanu Reeves in the “Matrix” franchise hugely enjoyed his emphatic return to the action genre (which he hadn’t technically left) with “John Wick.” What was more enjoyable than that was the fact that his collaboration with Chad Stahelski didn’t turn out to be a one-off and instead spawned not one, not two, but three more films. While the first film was a sleeper hit and ran at a brisk 101 minutes, the two installments that succeeded it increased in budget and in terms of running time as well. Fans and critics absolutely ate up “Chapter 2,” but felt that “Parabellum” stretched its premise and the plausibility of its set-pieces, a notion that I disagree with since I think “Chapter 2” and “Parabellum” are both perfect. That said, there was a palpable sense of skepticism going into “John Wick: Chapter 4,” not due to the budget but because of the 169-minute-long running time. Regarding that, all I’ll say is that if “John Wick: Chapter 4” had been longer, I would not have minded.
Written by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch and directed by the one and only Chad Stahelski, “John Wick: Chapter 4” probably takes place a few years after the events of “Parabellum” because John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has healed physically at least, after taking a tumble from the roofs of the Continental. The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) has clearly been taking good care of him and preparing him for his fight against the High Table. As his first mission, Wick travels back to Morocco to confront the Elder. He warns Wick that killing him won’t change his fate, as another Elder will be appointed, and the bounty on Wick will only be increased. Since Wick’s sense of judgment is clouded by vengeance, he shoots the Elder, thereby bringing the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) into the picture. Unlike the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), de Gramont is way more fascist in nature as he not only destroys the Continental but sends all his soldiers after Wick. And, just to make sure that Wick doesn’t make it out alive, he assigns Caine (Donnie Yen) and Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson) to do the honors.
If “John Wick” and “Chapter 2” were about fearing the man, the myth, and the legend that is Jardani Jovanovich, both “Chapter 3” and “John Wick: Chapter 4” are about hating him. Wick has earned his reputation by doing the hit jobs that were given to him. He earned even more respect when he chose retirement for Helen (Bridget Moynahan). His return gave everyone nightmares. But as his primal scream against the world of assassins, and the normal one that exists around it, started to seem endless, his presence became harmful. At multiple points throughout the movie, multiple characters keep likening Wick to poison because everything he was associated with has to face the consequences of being connected to John Wick. So, no matter how much Wick claims that his journey is personal to him, it isn’t. Hence, he has to find a conclusion not just for himself but for the sake of others. However, since achieving a physical death isn’t enough for the killing machine, he partakes in these melancholic and heartbreaking musings about spirituality, life, and giving meaning to the act of passing away. And it is in those moments where you see that Wick, Charon (Lance Reddick), Winston (Ian McShane), Caine, and Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada) would’ve loved to live a straightforward life if they weren’t born into the one they’re in.
What about the action, though? I don’t think there are enough adjectives in the dictionary to properly honor what Stahelski, DOP Dan Laustsen, editor Nathan Orloff, production designer Kevin Kavanaugh, the art directors, set decorators, the costume designers, the hair and makeup department, the special effects artists, the visual effects artists, and of course, every single member of the stunts department have pulled off. The phrases “neon-drenched” and “action extravaganza” have been used multiple times to describe the franchise’s overall aesthetic. It’s applicable to “John Wick: Chapter 4” as well. But there’s something different about it this time. Every frame is dripping with texture and layers. There are so many things happening in the foreground and background, and yet you are never confused about what you have to focus on. The architecture, despite having very little flora, feels luscious and grand. The bloody, gory, crunchy, and even goofy action stands in stark contrast to that. And it’s not all shoot-shoot, punch-punch, and kick-kick. At one point, the film enters into top-down video gaming territory to showcase Wick’s expertise, and it’s all one-take-esque, thereby setting it apart from the usual faux single-take action scenes where the cuts are so obvious. Additionally, the fact that all this jaw-dropping action concludes with a stripped-down, classic pistol duel automatically makes “Chapter 4” the best action film of all time.
Keanu Reeves is obviously the centerpiece of “John Wick: Chapter 4,” and he earns every second of his screen time, not so much with his words, but more with his physical presence. Pain, anger, restraint, sadness, determination, and compassion, it’s all conveyed through subtle and sometimes very obvious changes in the way he walks, the way he gets up after being knocked down, or how he uses his weapons. And no one will be surprised to know that Donnie Yen is the showstopper of the film. He’s a living legend, and he has nothing to prove. Yet, here he is, delivering a heartbreaking and witty performance. Shamier Anderson is straight-up magnetic. He seems charismatic and street-smart, but his eyes and his chemistry with his dog tell a completely different story. Hiroyuki Sanada and Rina Sawayama are amazing. Although I know it’s not possible, I would’ve loved to see more of them and the Osaka Continental. Clancy Brown, Ian McShane, and the late Lance Reddick keep things classy. Bill Skarsgård is pitch-perfect. The boy just knows how to play a good villain. Scott Adkins as Killa is a hoot. Natalia Tena is fantastic, as always. But it’s the stuntpeople, masked and unmasked, who deserve a standing ovation for their performances. I would’ve personally hugged all of them for their contribution to action cinema.
I don’t care if this is recency bias or not, and I don’t care if I sound repetitive, but “John Wick: Chapter 4” is currently my favorite action film of all time. It’ll be unfair to say that I haven’t seen anything like this before because the “John Wick” franchise is a product of all the action movies that precede it, and that is something Chad Stahelski, Keanu Reeves, and every single person who has worked on these movies will admit. If it wasn’t for John Woo, Woo-Ping Yuen, Hark Tsui, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, David Lean, Sergio Leone, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, and Donnie Yen himself, none of this would’ve existed. That said, it’s totally fair to say that Stahelski takes the work of all these inspirational people and elevates them to an insane degree. And I know that the success of this film will spawn copycats. But instead of rushing to do so, I think we all should sit with it and study how the makers have fine-tuned every aspect of the film to give us such a relentlessly entertaining time at the movies. In conclusion, if it’s not apparent already, please run to a theater near you and watch “John Wick: Chapter 4.”