Forget his bulletproof suit and plot armor, John Wick is mostly protected by Keanu Reeves’ nigh-biblical goodwill and the franchise’s endearing, earnest stupidity. The world’s favorite dog revenger shrugs off concussions like an NFL QB in a contract year. The police never so much as hassle the billionaire monsters who are actually responsible for all the violence. People at a club/rave can’t be bothered to shut down their grinding, continuing to dance as bullets, swords, and body parts fly all around them.
This was supposed to be an intro about how the “John Wick” movies are fantasy-based violent delights, but maybe the series has been stealth satire, skewering our callous reactions to brutalism… JK! The “Wick-iverse” is and always has been concerned with increasingly bonkers stunts, “oh damn!” face murders, and recognition that puppies are the only thing worth killing for. Nothing changes here, except that it lasts nearly 3 hours this time.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” should be an absolute chore. Especially considering that it is essentially just four action set-pieces linked together by short, annoying sequences where people have the audacity to talk to each other with their mouths and words. Fight one is in Osaka. Caine (Donnie Yen), a self-blinded murder-maker, is told to kill his old pal John Wick by the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård). If he doesn’t do it, they’ll kill his daughter. Without any other option, Caine raises…hell…murdering an entire hotel’s worth of people.
Johnny Dubs escapes and is advised by his mentor/betrayer Winston (Ian McShane) to challenge the Marquis to a duel. This is the kind of stupidity that makes this murderverse so fun. Everyone is constantly doing death to everyone else, but then somebody is like “Ah, ah, ah! You forgot the rules.” And everybody suddenly stops what they’re doing, like when moms walk in on a sibling brawl.
Before J Willy can fight the duel, he has to have a “crest” or something? To get one, he has to kill Killa, played by British B-movie martial artist Scott Adkins in a fat suit with a metal grill on his teeth. Sure. Fine. Nobody makes a joke about his weight, so it’s just a weird choice but whatever. Fight two is Johnny Wickington v Killa in a nightclub. The crowd is hilarious, as the extras treat the bullets and blood as mere annoying interruptions of their twerk work.
Fight three is on the Arc de Triomphe, where Jonathan Wicka-Wicka-Wicka is hit by like 100 cars. So are the bad guys. It’s like pinball but with human beings using motor vehicles as flippers. Fight four is on a 200+ step staircase leading to the church that serves as the duel site. Watching dozens upon dozens of dudes aggressively fall down said 200+ stairs is a reminder that, in the real-world, the first “John Wick” would have been about 20 minutes: A middle-aged assassin seeks revenge but then stands up too quickly and does a thing to his back/knee and can’t even make coffee without yelping in pain. Anyway, literally everybody was kung fu fighting, the duel ends with a twist (as everyone knows it will), and things conclude in a way that suggests we can all forget “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” ever happened.
Given its length, the fact that “Chapter 4” feels breezy is as nonsensical as the popularity of “assassin” as a profession in this franchise’s economy. It absolutely shouldn’t work. It absolutely does. The stylized violence becomes meditative, as the thwacking of fist to face and squelching of bullet through muscle transmogrify into a calming “ohm.” The staggering stunt work is, if not balletic, at least gymnastic; it is somewhere between body horror and athletic competition. Even the narrative claws its way from being buried alive beneath six feet of cliches to say…something.
That something is not the typical “dig two graves” finger wagging that most revenge opuses promote. As a series, “John Wick” remains fairly unapologetically pro-revenge. That’s kinda new for the genre. Moreover, the conclusion points to what a thoughtful redemption may look like. Absolution can’t come from undoing what has been done, nor can it come from selfishly achieving a goal. It can only be found though a selfless surrender that permits someone else to thrive. It is not a great or deep final reflection, but Jason Bourne could never…
For better and worse, “John Wick” has left an indelible mark on action blockbusters and pop culture writ large. His name is now a verb for what some people will do if you disrespect a pup. The violent choreography has upped the ante for all beat-em-ups moving forward. Weirdly, this somehow feels like the franchise that made everyone finally, truly appreciate Keanu Reeves. That alone is worth a briefcase full of hitman gold and then some.
Grade = A-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Emmanuel “E-Man” Noisette at The Movie Blog says “It’s hard to pick a favorite situation between the ‘traffic fight’ vs the stairs scene. Both had me hooting and hollering at the screen and wincing at all the inflicted pain.”
Wenlei Ma at News.Com.Au says “the franchise has always emphasized its high drama with its ambitious, saturated visuals. When you have a tableau of Reeves standing in a frame in front of a neon red sign as pink cherry blossoms blow through in slow-motion, you have to appreciate how much consideration is given to the way it looks. And it looks amazing.”
Siddhant Adlakha at JoySauce.com says “ Wick, now trapped in his fourth cinematic cycle of death and rebirth, is essentially on a mission to attain moksha—the Buddhist concept of release from saṃsāra, or the cyclical nature of birth, suffering, death and rebirth that defines the physical world—whose literal meaning is ‘the great quenching,’ in reference to a flame finally being blown out.”