I didn’t remember the end of John Wick Chapter 3, so I didn’t know what was happening at the start of John Wick Chapter 4. But that didn’t really matter after a few minutes. The plot of this movie is pretty simple: John Wick tries to earn his freedom from under the thumb of the High Table (a shadowy group that controls all the underground criminals, etc) and has to battle the countless fighters and assassins they throw at him. Part of me thinks they should have left all the High Table stuff behind and focused on a new mission for John.
The first movie is an insanely tight, lean, mean actioner. Each subsequent movie has had its high and low points, but none have captured the same slick intensity as the original. So where does Chapter 4 land?
I should work backwards from the elephant in the room. John Wick 4 is almost 3 hours long. I think their intention was to create an action epic. Long-time followers of my film opinions know that I’m pretty hard on movies with a running time that extreme; it can and has been done well many times, but it usually just means you’re in for a bloated, self-indulgent mess. John Wick 4 is somewhere in the middle. It’s paced reasonably well, especially considering how little story there is, but I did check my watch a few times. And with so little story, John Wick 4 is like Jeanne Dielman, but instead of mundane household tasks, it’s shooting guys in the head.
All that said, there was an interesting element of immersion to it. In some ways it was numbing — some sequences were easily a half hour long. So it’s a half hour of watching Keanu run down a hallway shooting guys. However, that doesn’t do it justice either. The stunt work and choreography (as well as the set design and camera work) in the film are simply spellbinding. So it’s more like watching an immersive, violent ballet — beautiful carnage.
There is a powerful cast, led by Keanu Reeves. Yes, it makes me cringe almost every time he tries to deliver dialogue (he’s so bad), but he’s also one of the only people that can thrive in a role like this (he’s so good). They keep that dialogue to a minimum and Reeves’ body is a holy action temple, flexible and gracious, movement with meaning. He’s backed up by martial arts staple Donny Yen, who is also glorious to behold in more than one sequence as a blind frenemy of Wick’s. Ian McShane, Lawrence Fishburne, Hiroyuko Sanada, and others round out the cast with gravitas (And RIP to Lance Reddick, who passed away last week). Bill Skarsgård is also suitably oily as one of the main baddies.
If we set the whole running time debate aside, the only thing I’d note that doesn’t help the film is the number of plot holes (or just cheap writing) on display. Granted, you don’t go see a movie about a killing machine murdering 300 people with half hour kill sequences to pay too much attention to the plot. But these things do matter. When they’re not done well, they pull an audience out of the movie, which is already working so hard to be something immersive and different. But there are so many little, “Why didn’t he just do ____?” moments. When the answer is, “because otherwise they wouldn’t have had a movie,” then you need to do another pass at the script. It’s also worth noting that the original cut of the film was over 4 hours long, so there may have been some clarifying details that ended up on the cutting room floor. But that’s another writing/editing problem, not an audience problem.
If I sound like I’m being hard on the movie, let me say that I still enjoyed it. It’s nowhere near the first movie — and each John Wick movie I see honestly just makes me want to go back and watch the original — but it’s still a lot of fun, a total bonanza for action fans (at least, for those who are pretty desensitized to violence). And there are some great quotable lines in the movie, especially revolving around friendship and brotherhood, a theme it explores. It occasionally goes a bit deeper into these ideas, even if they’re just there to add to the macho vibes.
If they do more of these in the future, it would be nice to wipe the slate clean and get back to the simplicity of the original, both in terms of storytelling and length/editing. But John Wick Chapter 4 is well-worth seeing for any action fan.