Epic John Wick: Chapter 4 an Exhaustingly Exhilarating Action Spectacular
John Wick: Chapter 4 does not know when to quit, and I’ll take bets that few are going to care. This is an action spectacular that delivers one eye-popping sequence of extended mayhem after another. The story hits the sandy desert at a determined gallop and then stubbornly refuses to slow down, and for almost three hours straight, director Chad Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves go for broke on a level not seen outside of bullet-riddled Hong Kong cinema of the 1980s or 21st-century, gore-drenched Korean genre fair.
John Wick (Reeves) has been recuperating in New York’s underground courtesy of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) ever since the Continental’s manager, Winston (Ian McShane), shot him off the hotel’s roof. Now he’s healthy and ready to make his reappearance. But during Wick’s time away, the High Table has not been sitting on its laurels. It’s given unprecedented power to the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård), and he is determined to lay waste to everything and anyone who aided the assassin after he went on his relentless rampage after the death of his beloved puppy, given to him by his late wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan).
There’s no reason to go into the plot in any greater detail. As convoluted as the screenplay by Shay Hatten (Day Shift) and Michael Finch (Predators) can get, the basics remain fairly simple: A bevy of bad guys attempt to kill John Wick. John Wick fights back. A smorgasbord of dead bodies, the majority of them shot in the head, are all that’s left behind as John relentlessly moves forward like the Terminator toward his next confrontation. That’s it. There’s little more to add.
The wrinkles this time around come in the form of the adversaries put in the boogeyman’s way. As chilling as Skarsgård may be as the primary villain — and his is an unsettling presence for the entirety of the film — he’s nothing compared to the people he utilizes to bring John down. Chilean action superstar Marko Zaror portrays his righthand man Chidi. Indie dynamo Scott Adkins is the massive German enforcer appropriately known only as Killa. The great Donnie Yen is the unstoppable blind hitman Caine, a tortured soul who thought his time serving the High Table had come to an end, until the Marquis shows up to emotionlessly tell him otherwise.
John has friends of his own. The Bowery King, of course; with the Marquis on the warpath, Winston has no other choice but to return to John’s good graces and give him the tools required to defy the High Table on their terms, not his. But his chief benefactor comes in the form of the Tokyo Continental’s manager Shimazu, portrayed by Japanese icon Hiroyuki Sanada, and his expert swordsmanship will be needed when the High Table sends its best to see if he’s been giving John sanctuary.
Also on hand are Shamier Anderson as a nameless tracker who has been doggedly on John’s tail ever since he emerged from the Bowery King’s lair, and pop megastar Rina Sawayama as Shimazu’s loving daughter Akira, who worries that her father’s friendship with the excommunicated executioner will be the death of him. Practically everyone will encounter one another (with a few notable exceptions) in a fight over the course of this energetic epic’s running time, thus allowing Reeves to face off with a cadre of martial arts titans as John works his way through the High Table’s minions in his dogged pursuit of freedom.
What’s impressive is that, for a series that came perilously close to jumping the shark in its third installment, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, in this fourth chapter, even with the film’s ungodly length, Stahelski and Reeves manage to craft a far more streamlined, much less cartoonish jolt of absurdity that grounds all its stunning action in emotionally authentic character dynamics. John’s quest for freedom becomes genuine once again, and not since 2014’s first John Wick have I cared so much about what was going to happen to the guy.
But he’s not the only one. Yen’s Caine is also memorably fleshed out, and the actor — even if he’s borrowing a bit from his slightly similar Rogue One: A Star Wars Story role — brings him to life with superlative grace and heartrending subtlety. He and John are two sides of the same coin, and the fact that the High Table has decided to pit them against one another is a betrayal each man will not be able to forgive. Yen is mesmerizing: when he was around, I could not take my eyes off of him, and when he wasn’t, I sat on pins and needles waiting for his return.
I can’t tell you which action set piece I liked the best, as all of them are stunning. Even better, each is different. Stahelski and his crack stunt team make sure things never grow stale, moving John from one type of exhilarating skirmish to the next with kinetic urgency. There’s a pugnacious face-off between Reeves and Adkins that’s bone-crushingly magnificent, while a marathon ascent up the 300 steps to Sacré-Cœur in Paris is exhaustingly superb.
It’s strange to think that what started as a high-grade, relatively inexpensive action throwback about a hitman getting revenge for the killing of his dog and the theft of his car has blossomed into a big-budget, four-film franchise that’s spawning a female-driven spinoff (Ballerina starring Academy Award nominee Ana de Armas) and reportedly an anthology television series set inside New York’s Continental. It should also be noted that the sprawling mythology concerning the High Table and its never-ending armies of crack assassins has gotten increasingly nonsensical as one John Wick escapade quite literally bleeds into the next.
Not that I’m complaining. Few series of this type have maintained this level of quality and ingenuity over four installments without growing stale. As absurd as the scenarios surrounding the High Table may be, John Wick as a protagonist remains as fascinating as ever. With the addition of Zaror, Adkins, Sanada, and especially Yen to the fold, this sequel features some of the best hand-to-hand cinematic combat I’ve ever seen. Much like its title character, John Wick: Chapter 4 hits everything it targets with lethal precision, and this killer entry overflows in life.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)