Directed by Chad Stahelski
Written by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch
There's an annoying tendency amongst the film nerds of falling over themselves to praise the John Wick franchise simply because it's so unique in American cinema, though, really, it'd be unique in anyone's cinema: "gun-fu martial arts" is well-attested outside of American film, obviously, but the shift in tone over the series as it went from being about a slightly-fanciful secret assassins' guild to an untethered high fantasy about a complete alternate Earth that's more-or-less openly-ruled by said assassins' guild (if "assassin's guild" even properly describes it anymore) has turned it into something I don't think has specific analogues (at least in live-action) anywhere else. That annoying tendency, anyway, has been one I've resisted since the series' high-water mark, John Wick: Chapter 2, which essentially completed this franchise's orphic journey and still, to my mind, features its best action (also, and as this is a major component of the franchise and one of those "entirely unique" things that makes the series special, its best art gallery sets). That tendency is the same one you'll notice with Gene Kelly musicals, or Buster Keaton comedies, to attribute the quality of the best dance scene or most successfully amazing comic stuntwork to the entire film they belong to. Maybe that's fair enough: series shepherd Chad Stahelski has openly courted those comparisons and obviously prefers his Wick films to be seen as containers for mind-blowing choreographic sequences embedded in an imaginative structure rather than "stories," as such, and sometimes without heed to them being particularly good arrangements of mind-blowing choreographic sequences. Though now he's openly courting comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia—opening John Wick: Chapter 4 with an overt homage to Lean's film, that simultaneously sets the stage for another clasically-inflected battle through the underworld with Laurence Fishburne quoting Dante's supposition of how the welcome sign to Dis reads—and I'm not at all sure what to do with that.
That sounds sour, and I'm practically always a little sour, but the good news is that this is mostly John Wick returning to its strengths, in some respects even returning to the action-as-emotions storytelling that (in part) made Chapter 2 so extraordinary, though it retains too many of the series' more random and scattershot impulses to insist too strongly that it isn't another example of "stuff happens to John Wick and John Wick punches, kicks, and shoots it after grappling with it for a greater or lesser while." (At least until the end, which certainly has a logic to it, but is not what I wanted.) But I'm here to praise it, even if I'm not here to praise it as strongly as you prefer; if I were to call it a retread of John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum, it absolutely is, but it is the much, much more satisfying version of Chapter 3. As much as these aren't supposed to be "screenplay" films, I suspect this has something to do with the switch-up in the writing team, which wasn't even "a team" for the first two—series co-creator Derek Kolstad authored both of those by himself—and with only Shay Hatten returning from the cumbersome four-person writing circle (that included a tapped-out Kolstad) who developed Chapter 3, it appears that Hatten wasn't the one who was over-invested in, for example, field trips to see where John Wick's coins get made (or the word "excommunicado," which happily only pops up two or three times here). Although Chapter 4 is tremendously longer than even Chapter 3 (a boggling 169 minutes against Chapter 3's 131), it feels—well, if not shorter, then at least of no greater duration, which is basically the same thing as "shorter" when the runtimes are both long but one's still a whole lot longer. If I'm being honest, I'm not sure I can entirely account for that feeling: it's still maximally "John Wick" in all the ways that started to get tedious in Chapter 3—thickly ensconced in lore, constantly creaming its pants over its own hero, so devoted to shifting colored party lighting that you might be forgiven if you didn't remember a frame that actually looked normal, and unwilling to discard even one choreographic idea once someone's come up with it. Likewise, it strikes me like lighting now that the entire franchise might not have ever had a really strong central villain. I don't even necessarily mean strong in characterization, like a dweeb, I mean strong in the brutest and most basic terms, of simply posing an actual physical threat to the Baba Yaga.
It comes down, I guess, to just turning the series' strengths back into strengths, especially not getting bogged down in exploring every nook and cranny of an increasingly nonsensical world. The feeling of being suffocated by series mythology is a feeling again now, rather than an objective fact, so that the self-seriousness of the film's grave pontifications about life, death, rules, consequences, loyalty, and so forth return to being a source of pleasure. It feels paced right, too: the non-playable video game sensation that's always followed the series around like a specter is still present, but not allowed to establish itself—even the very worst aspect of Chapter 3, the "everybody is basically bulletproof now" innovation that reduces firearms, or at least pistols, to slightly-longer-ranged punches, is better-integrated, so at least everyone involved seems to know their guns are secondary tools now. The NPCs are still NPCs but not in every instance do they feel like total ciphers: it's not my very favorite moment, but there's a beat early on in a sequence re-doing the grindingly-dull penultimate battle from Chapter 3 that I think might be the best representation of the distinction I'm trying to draw, when one of the literally-faceless goons actually puts our hero on the backfoot, and he's not even the only one who manages to present something resembling a genuine danger rather than just a passive bullet-sponge. So part of it is just "better action ideas" (certainly it's not "less-insisted-upon action ideas"), but even the idea that Stahelski comes dangerously close to wearing too thin, involving a very long staircase that our hero is obliged to ascend twice, winds up serving as such a perfect metaphor for what's been happening to John this entire franchise that I don't think I'd have it any other way, and it doesn't hurt that the second time he has to climb those stairs it's done differently. It juices its ideas, then, without continuing on to squeeze a husk.
It's naturally a film that poses the danger of turning any discussion about it into "this cool thing, that cool thing, the other cool thing," so I'll try to pull back on that (I will likely fail). Maybe the other big difference is that the melancholy, claustrophobic, lonely atmosphere of Chapter 2 is recaptured—it is not so much John Wick & Friends. I have said it's Chapter 3 over again, and that does sum up the plot, with its starting place basically identical to where Chapter 2 concluded most of a decade ago. So: having been excommunicated from his society of killers because he went against their rules and now must face the consequences, our depressed widower and mincemeat-maker John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is effectively at war with the secret government of the world, the High Table, now represented by the Marquis Vincent da Gramont (Bill Skarsgard), given plenary powers to use all the Table's infinite resources to annihilate the apostate, so long as "infinite resources" means "infinite pools of disorganized manpower" and not "just one single fragmentation grenade" or "a tactical unit whose members all manage to engage John simultaneously." Reasoning that when an enemy goes to ground what you do is deny him the ground, the Marquis's first act is to destroy the New York Continental—that is, the base of the assassins in NYC; thankfully, this film assumes you've internalized the franchise's previous lore dumps, which may be why it feels more efficient—thereby stripping one of John's few allies, Winston (Ian McShane), of his status before the Table.
This does wonders in making it feel like John's isolated again; this is much closer to the John Wick vs. Earth that was promised. John, for his part, has been sheltered at the Osaka Continental by his remaining ally Koji (Hirouki Sanada), but this state of affairs cannot pertain for long. The Marquis dragoons an equally-feared veteran killer, the blind assassin Caine (Donnie Yen), to track his old friend John down and dispose of him; along for the ride of course comes the Table's customary army, though as usual in these things, any given character's quotient of ninjitsu is directly proportional to the size of their personality. Things get complicated when a certain Nobody (Shamier Anderson) enters the picture, "helping" John on occasion but only because he's keen on pumping the price on John's bounty so that he can take his head himself. John doesn't have time for that right now, because he's on a quest that sends him from Osaka to Berlin to Paris, in the desperate hope that he can use the rules against his adversary, though his adversary is not above bending those rules.
So John's "friends," this time, at least the ones that could be of any significant utility, or outlast the first forty minutes of the movie, are uniformly antagonists—who may run at cross-purposes to the villain, but are, in any case, still trying to do John harm—and they just represent a much more interesting supporting cast this time around, Yen in particular being downright great in the mechanics of his blind acting and sense of crushed world-weariness. There's a persistent sense they could be more interesting: besides the mangle it makes of things (and the mangle is obnoxious) when John's antagonists are brought together under the Marquis without actually harmonizing their goals, the elevation of Nobody to basically a third protagonist alongside John and Caine doesn't feel very productive (and the insistent intercutting of Nobody into the finale's longeurs is, like, actively emotionally confusing). He has a couple of gimmicks, but the big one is he has a dog (and yes, we all remember it's all about a dog), which I have never really liked since they brought that in with Chapter 3. There's a cruelty to it that feels beyond the ambit of the Wick films' methods of bodily destruction—these are not gorefests, and they sure as anything aren't about the realistic results of violence—and, though this is a minor point, I'm not sure that a film franchise fundamentally about a man so enraged by a dog's death he killed everybody remotely connected to that dog's death should be this cavalier about canine slave soldiers; the genuinely irritating thing about it, however, is that dogs are treated like the ultimate weapon so that every single one of these masters of hand-to-hand combat is reduced to a screaming baby every time they fight one. Yeah, at this point I do want to see a dog get bludgeoned to death, just to prove Stahelski can take this seriously. But ideally dogs would just not be in these movies except as totems of the emotional grounding that John may or may not be capable of anymore, and that is proven, I think, beyond any possibility of argument by a single shot that is the sole reason this is a 7/10 (and not the highest 7/10) rather than an 8, when the least John Wick thing imaginable happens, and Chapter 4 becomes for three horrible seconds an Illumination cartoon.
Meanwhile, Skarsgard's Marquis is kind of the platonic ideal of the Wick series' lack of strong villainy, and I kept kind of expecting some elaboration where it turned out the vast stores of personality represented by this fey, cultured, velvet-draped anti-French cartoon—Skarsgard's performance is wonderful—foreshadowed, as an inevitable consequence of this franchise's narrative laws, a prowess of his own; and that definitely never happens. (As noted, he's not even honorable, which I would also have accepted as "interesting.") As for the most interesting new character, Koji's aggrieved daughter Akira (Rina Sawayama), given a twisted motivation that could have just as easily sent her to war against John as Caine, I went to the bathroom and she vanished from the movie. So unless John killed her in the three minutes I was gone—which would obviate my objections, to be clear—she didn't go to war against anybody.
But, you know: the action. And the action is splendid, arranged across these 169 minutes (at a guess, I'd say the actual proportion of action runs about one-third and perhaps even a little more, so that's a lot of action) with a better sense than Chapter 3 of consistency and escalation—though the final "action" scene is in fact the most constrained act of violence in the entire franchise (it's literally one-dimensional), to its benefit. It's not as good as Chapter 2 about how to escalate: there are four major sequences (the Osaka Continental; a nightclub that may also somehow be Roman ruins in Berlin; a chase ending up at the Arc de Triomphe; and finally those aforementioned stairs, leading to Sacre Coeur), but the first two seem to me undeniably better. Though the Osaka sequence is a reimagination of the armor plate stuff from Chapter 3, it's far better, and presents real group vs. group combat in this franchise for, if I'm not mistaken, the first time—Sawayama gets a cooler scene utilizing stairs than Reeves does, in fact. It's varied choreographically and visually: it effectively takes place in a Japanese art museum, so it's also to some degree like Chapter 2 and also every other John Wick fight scene, but using its setting well to bring a new flavor to the proceedings. (So besides the "actually effective NPC" bit I mentioned earlier, John also gets some nunchuks, and this is in the running for "my favorite small thing" because Reeves, foregoing the pageantry that so often attends nunchuks, just wallops people in the head with them in the most casual way one might wallop somebody with two sticks tied together by a chain.)
The sequence in the Berlin nightclub might not have such perfect little beats but I find it hard to understand how it's not supposed to be the best: an embiggening of the nightclub sequence from the original John Wick, the expanded scope is wonderful (it also has the best coruscating lights of a film that might well be 50% coruscating lights), and if it's missing one essential ingredient—a melancholy banger of a pop song, because that was David Leitch's department and Chad Stahelski is not very good at deploying music (he does try a little later, and it's okay)—it makes up for that in a big way with the best new character, Killa Harkens (Scott Adkins), whose loopy Dick Tracy energy outright overwhelms the movie as long as he's here. He represents, by some substantial margin, the most menace John ever faces, and he might've still won the film if he didn't, by forcing John and the other antagonists to play a game of cards to decide John's fate, reflecting the entire film and even the entire franchise in miniature: amidst garish lights that would render the space dysfunctional for any normal use, a game is played in which every character is dealt an improbably strong hand, and they lose anyway because the dealer's been cheating. Then they have a massive rumble amongst even more lights and a throng of civilians who barely notice. (This is my other criticism of the scene, anyway, that Stahelski opts for a kind of uncanny valley of crowd reaction—if they're right next to the fight choreography, they can be nonplussed—but as they are essentially props, much like all the objets d'art that festoon the sets, best if they hadn't cared at all.) If there's another scene that equally sums up the franchise, I suppose it might be Winston walking for like three minutes through an art gallery to have a tense conversation, with a vague sarcastic tinge to it, about the rules. But that is also a good scene.
The Paris fights (which could be categorized as three action scenes, or really just one), have their superlative aspects—the live-action Frogger at the Arc de Triomphe roundabout is fun; I've mentioned the steps; and at this point in his career, noting the clarity and patient editing would feel like belaboring Stahelski's obvious mastery of the formal presentation of violence—and I am satisfied, if not ecstatic, about where it winds up. Furthermore, it looks fantastic: Dan Lausten's cinematography has possibly never been better, even if I find Chapter 2's finale more impressive, and considering the aesthetic constraints—colored lights, orange and teal color grading representing "globe-spanning tyranny" (I assume as a conscious choice), the glossy fashion magazine complexion the Wick series has always had under his guidance—it's downright miraculous that it always keeps finding ways to look interesting after three films, especially with this one being practically as long as two normal films. (So one more cool thing: my archnemesis, shallow focus, comes into play often enough but when it's used it's to create neat effects, most especially in a weird exploitation of the unaccountably-giant Venetian blinds in the Marquis's New York office to render Skarsgard a kind of bizarrely terraced figure.) So a good movie. Don't ask me to adore it, but Chapter 4 is a return to form, and I'm very happy such an idiosyncratic and ambitious thing managed to carve out its own space in a cinematic landscape where everything else is too much of the same.