John Wick: Chapter 4 goes all-in on operatic action excess and delivers a sequel that maintains and expands the worldbuilding that’s made the films so popular but also strives for the simple action purity that makes the first film still the best in my opinion. While I was worried that this was the first film not to have Derek Kolstad as a screenwriter, hot new kid on the block Shay Hatten—who worked on the third film as well as the spin-off, Ballerina—and Michael Finch—best known for the underrated Predators, which he followed with plenty of assassin movies—construct this film like it’s a goddamn symphony in three acts with a humming emotional through-line that offers genuine catharsis in the end.
After two sequels of pissing off the High Table, John Wick may finally have a way to freedom, and all he has to do is kill the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård in excellent French asshole mode)…as long as he can navigate all these ridiculous and arbitrary rules that these assassins somehow live by. (One of my favorite things about the first movie was how it implied the existence of this labyrinthine underworld, but the more the sequels make things explicit, the harder they are to take seriously!) Since John may be at the end of his journey, the script very pointedly offers him moments of reflection about what his purpose is after he is free and also to consider how many people have died simply because they helped him survive his war against the High Table. That character focus is something I really liked about the third movie compared to the second, so I was glad that Hatten carried it over, and reminded us that even though all this started because someone killed his dog, it’s his wife he’s been grieving all this time, which grounds the film in human emotion even when the arcane lore becomes ever more absurd. But also cool.
All of this plot and character work constitutes maybe an hour total of this 169-minute movie, leaving nearly two hours to be outright mayhem. Thus, it’s not non-stop action, as it gives you time to breathe in between the three extended action sequences that are all actually several action sequences stitched together, but even that hour of connective tissue features beautiful scenes where director Chad Stahelski ratchets up the tension. There’s an early scene where characters discuss what will happen when an hourglass runs out and every single fucking shot shows the hourglass in frame.
The film’s greatest innovation, however, is putting focus on not one but two likable and sympathetic antagonists: Caine, a blind assassin and old friend of John’s who’s compelled to kill him to protect his daughter, and an unnamed tracker dubbed Mr. Nobody, who’s compelled to kill John because he wants to be paid a shitload of money. It’s natural to somewhat root for Caine because he’s under duress and he’s played by Donnie Yen, who gives the character an endearing playfulness that feels uniquely quirky compared to Mark Dacascos’s fanboy assassin, who in retrospect seems like Hatten’s first stab at writing an antagonist we might want to win. I love that he’s not fucking Daredevil or even Zatoichi, so he’s constantly feeling his way through environments and developing clever methods of determining where his targets are. While he does shoot people, Yen’s talents are much more on display when he’s using a blade or blunt object.
Meanwhile, there’s no good reason I should have ended up rooting for Mr. Nobody because he’s just another guy trying to kill John for money except he’s a scrappy, wry motherfucker with an emotional support dog, and this is a pro-dog franchise. Shamier Anderson makes the character a fun wild card throughout the film, not really as familiar with the lore as all the other characters and thus less beholden to the rules.
I’ve also got to shout out Hiroyuki Sanada and Rina Sawayama for lighting up the screen so vibrantly that the Osaka sequence feels like an entire satisfying movie where even though I only met their characters a few minutes before shit got real, I was super invested in their making it out alive. Sanada’s always a compelling screen presence, so that was no surprise, but pop star Sawayama makes a hell of a film debut, proving Stahelski right in his decision to cast someone who could handle the choreography of these balletic fight scenes.
And that’s really what we’re here for, isn’t it? While the film doesn’t have as many gonzo moments as the previous sequels, it shines in its utter relentlessness once an action scene kicks off. I love watching John Wick kill people because he’s so ruthless and resourceful, fighting with everything he’s got and always shooting the corpse for good measure, but I also love watching Caine kill people because he fucking has FUN with it and I also love watching Mr. Nobody kill people because he’s got a DOG and I also love watching Sawayama’s Akira kill people because she WILL SHOOT AN ARROW INTO SOMEONE’S HEAD AT POINT-BLANK RANGE. If you can suspend your disbelief that this secret assassin underworld just conducts their business in public and people don’t seem to be very bothered by it, you can appreciate delightful scenes where people are trying to kill each other in the middle of a club full of dancers or in the middle of a street full of cars. I cannot properly explain in words why watching John Wick fend off a horde of assassins while attempting to dodge cars filled me with such glee—part of it was the sick Gesaffelstein needle drop that had me bouncing in my seat—but it’s all in how this series creates choreographed chaos. Also it’s got a bit where John Wick just does donuts around dudes whilst shooting them from his doorless car.
Cinematographer Dan Laustsen captures that chaos in gorgeous wide shots dappled with neon and rain, making other action movies look dull and grey. Also there are plenty of scenes at night or in darkened rooms and YOU CAN SEE EVERYTHING. Editor Nathan Orloff restrains himself, rarely cutting up combat unless a certain move might have more impact up close, and luckily the cast and stunt team do their fucking jobs well enough that he can allow Laustsen’s long shots to shine. Including a glorious overhead tracking shot that briefly turns the movie into Hotline Miami and it may be the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.
Composers Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard deliver a score that reflects the influences of whatever area the film is in at the time, but there’s also some cheeky diegetic music to underscore the action.
When Stahelski opened the film with a reference to Lawrence of Arabia, I cackled, but you know what, I sure did watch an action epic. It was certainly no brief encounter, but I never felt its length. To watch a John Wick movie is to be sucked into this weirdo world and admire the cinematic glory of precisely crafted violence in so many forms. And despite the occasional stilted line reading that somehow just makes John Wick more endearingly beleaguered, Keanu Reeves gives the film its beating heart—with an assist from Ian McShane’s warmth as Winston—that left me extremely satisfied with its conclusion.