It all started with Keanu Reeves, a dead dog, a stolen car, and the haunting memory of a lost loved one. But the “John Wick” franchise has stretched its simple tale of revenge into a sprawling epic whose outings grow exponentially more vast and intricate. “John Wick: Chapter 4” pushes the series to its outermost limits, delivering some of the best action in American cinema history.
That it does so while bolstering its spectacle with surprisingly moving social commentary is a testament to how grand even the most basic popcorn entertainment can be when the creators are most focused on telling the best possible story now, not just saving it for the next installment. The same can’t be said for the bloated “Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” the only film in the series with a pretentious subtitle. Though it only clocked in at 10 minutes longer than the two-hour runtime for “Chapter 2,” “Parabellum” was a slog, but only because it exemplified the worst impulses of a post-“cinematic universe” Hollywood.
The first “John Wick” introduced us to its titular figure of doom. Calling him a hero would be both generous and deceptive. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired hitman turned reclusive widower, left alone with the emotional support dog posthumously gifted to him by his dead wife. But some feckless crooks killed that pet and stole his car. The ensuing path of revenge drew him back into a Byzantine world of underground assassins. Because audiences enjoyed watching a depressed Keanu murder nearly a hundred people, we were given a sequel.
“Chapter 2” expanded the sneaky worldbuilding of its first outing, elaborating upon this fascinating neo-noir society in new and intriguing ways. John Wick’s world is not dissimilar to the fantasy role play of tabletop gaming, only with all the magic wands replaced with Glocks and all the chainmail replaced with Brioni suits. Rather than just a simple tale of one man’s revenge, “Chapter 2” transformed the franchise into the story of the High Table, the organization ruling this criminal underworld. In my review of the film back in 2017, I called it “a depressing approximation of capitalist society made literal with video game mechanics and flashy carnage.” That film left audiences expecting Wick to wage an all-out war against the overlords who wanted him dead in what could have been the most thrilling labor-versus-capitalist narrative since the ’90s, when WWF’s “Stone Cold” Steve Austin laid hands on his billionaire degenerate boss Vince McMahon.
But seeking surplus value for the shareholders isn’t only the root of all evil within Wick’s fictional world, but also here in reality for the business that decides his fate. “Parabellum” saw the franchise ditch its original screenwriter, Derek Kolstad, in favor of a writer’s room responsible for seeding television tie-ins. The result was a movie that still hit similar heights of action and thrills but was bogged down by moving further away from Wick’s central journey. I’ll never turn down seeing Halle Berry and a small army of dogs fighting bad guys, but it’s clear the series was losing its way trying to keep up with the MCUs of the world when its origins lay in clear counterprogramming to that kind of brand synergy.
Thankfully, “Chapter 4” learns from all the mistakes made in “Parabellum.” Director Chad Stahelski, Keanu’s former stunt double on the “Matrix” films who has helmed every entry here thus far, was adamant that they needed to make a movie that delivered what fans wanted from a John Wick film. These movies are, at their core, exercises in showcasing the best fight choreography, the best car chase staging, and the most balletic shootouts. Rather than get hung up trying to expand the lore, Stahelski and his team focused on strengthening what has worked historically and jettisoning whatever didn’t serve Wick’s arc. It’s all about John Wick trying to get out from under the High Table, cutting a path of destruction in the feeble hopes of ending his life as a man free from physical debts, if not karmic ones.
The result is a film that borrows from the scale and tone of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, while homaging the sweep of David Lean’s epics, the bravura camera work of Brian De Palma, and the cartoon physics (and comic relief) of “Looney Tunes.” Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dan Laustsen has clearly been let off some chain. Pushing the film’s visual palette harder than ever before, he unleashes a smorgasbord of colors and vistas, making every frame of the film a feast for the eyes.
There are more new players than ever, but they all fit the proceedings better than those in the previous films. The film is full of fun supporting turns from the likes of Hiroyuki Sanada, pop star Rina Sawayama, direct-to-video action icon Scott Adkins (in a fatsuit, no less), and martial arts legend Donnie Yen as a blind warrior Wick considers a close friend. Returning cast members Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne continue to chew up any available scenery not already littered with bullet holes. But Bill Skarsgård is perhaps the biggest surprise as the over-the-top face of the High Table’s aristocratic arrogance. In a franchise with 400-plus casualties, never before has one man made an audience yearn for his death this effectively..
At nearly three hours, “Chapter 4” is the longest in the series, but it’s got the least fat. Where “Parabellum” felt overlong and overstuffed, this one moves at a deliberate pace, taking long, luxurious breaks for suspense and breathing room before transitioning back into one of the film’s three interconnected set pieces. Yes, the movie makes you wait half an hour for the first real action, but that sequence is so ornately arranged and so impressively paced that when it’s over, the audience needs that time to get ready for the next heart-stopping bit of violence.
But if this was all empty calories, even the truly mind-blowing fights and shootouts would grow tiresome eventually. “Chapter 4” lives on the pathos of Reeves’ understated and melancholic performance. In the first film, a bartender asks him how life is on the other side of the world. He tells her, “It was good. Far better than I deserved.” Four movies deep, and with more evidence than ever that John Wick will never get a happy ending, we still watch and pray for one.
This one also nourishes the soul with countless examples of solidarity and brotherhood as a defense against the all-consuming authority of the ruling class. There are scenes where men Wick has known for years exchange brutal aphorisms about loyalty and what it means to be a real comrade. The brusque but quotable nature of these one-liners would not look out of place on an Instagram page run by men’s rights activists and hustle culture enthusiasts who parrot talking points about having a “Sigma Grindset.” It’s all oversimplified and written in the terse poetry of Guy Movie Grit, but it’s delivered with a sincerity that cuts through the cliche.
The pandemic took a lot from the film industry. Still, one benefit of such a long drought with nothing to sustain and entertain us but streaming platform nonsense and superhero chicanery means that, every few weeks, a movie like “John Wick: Chapter 4” blows the doors off of a packed house. It leaves us grinning and sated with no more cogent thoughts than “the movies are back, baby.”
I look forward to reciting that mantra many more times this year.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” is in theaters nationwide Thursday, March 23.