In 2014, a mid-budget passion project from stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski and the actor he used to double, Keanu Reeves, became a surprise cult hit and redefined the American action movie in the process. Since the release of the first John Wick, Stahelski and his creative partner David Leitch have found their action design studio, 87Eleven, in high demand. 87Eleven Action Design grew from a contracted pre-viz and stunt team favored by major studios into to a pair of intertwined production shingles, Stahelski’s 87Eleven Productions and Leitch’s 87 North, who are now responsible not only for the John Wick series but a string of “Wick-likes,” such as Nobody and Kate. Still, none of the officially-sanctioned imitators can touch the real deal. At long last, John Wick is back with a new ballet of bullets and blades, and it’s every bit as bloody, beautiful, and gut-bustingly funny as ever.
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
The series has come a long way, beginning with a heavily stylized neon-noir and growing into a bonkers urban fantasy with a delightful disregard for realism. John Wick, particularly 2019’s Chapter 3 and this latest installment, is essentially American martial arts cinema, not only because they’re Hollywood movies driven by dazzling fight sequences showing off their stars’ intensive training, but because those fight sequences incorporate guns, cars, and dogs that bite peoples’ nuts off. If you’re reading this and thinking, “That sounds dreadful,” then there’s a fair likelihood that these films are not for you. However, if you’re even the least bit susceptible to the spectacle of violence, then John Wick is irresistible, and Chapter 4 is its most spectacular entry.
Chapter 4 finds excommunicated hitman John Wick (Reeves) on a roaring rampage of revenge against the High Table, the global society of assassins that rules his entire world. The powers that be, represented this time around by a French aristocrat, the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), are out to kill Wick and anyone who shelters him, leading to a web of contracts and vendettas that stretches across the globe. Though its opening 20 minutes (out of a total of 170) are burdened with a lot of clunky exposition, the film picks up momentum rapidly as Wick bounces from stunning location to stunning location. In each new city, he does battle against or alongside an array of new characters who are more memorable than any of the combatants from the first three films. Hong Kong legend Donnie Yen joins the ensemble as blind assassin Caine, with him bringing his top-tier martial arts bona fides and cocky comic charisma. Japanese star Hiroyuki Sanada is on hand to portray the exact same noble warrior character Hollywood always hires him to play, but with a new foil in British-Japanese pop star Rina Sawayama making a capable feature acting debut. Relative unknown Shamier Anderson steals a number of scenes as rival assassin/dog lover Mr. Nobody. Scott Adkins, the king of direct-to-video action schlock, is on hand and wearing a fatsuit and prosthetics akin to Colin Farrell’s Penguin for some reason, but as disturbing as I may find this particular Hollywood trend, it’s just stupid enough to work in John Wick’s heightened reality, where the grittiness of Daniel Craig’s Bond meets the utter nonsense of Roger Moore’s.
The Bond comparisons come surprisingly easy, as Chad Stahelski and the new writing team of Shay Hatten and Michael Finch seem to realize that trying to add depth or texture to their lead character is as unnecessary here as it was in the Sean Connery era. By now, we know what makes Wick tick, and what we want is to see him dropped into a variety of lavish, lovingly lit environments and onto a different continent every 40 minutes. Stahelski and director of photography Dan Lausten (who has shot every John Wick except the first) love nothing more than to bathe ornate and contemporary sets in pulsing, oscillating bisexual lighting and then let the stunt team go to town. One could accuse them of simply copying the style of the Shanghai skyscraper fight from Skyfall again, and again, and again, but I, for one, am not sick of it yet. At the same time, Stahelski seems determined to stretch himself further as a director with each installment. Beyond finding new ways to innovate on the long take action sequences that have become a series staple, Stahelski spends many of the film’s quieter moments searching for his inner Kubrick, setting the stage for the film’s third act with an array of painterly tableaus of Parisian landmarks.
Part of the charm of the John Wick series is the extent to which it takes itself seriously, even as each installment gets progressively sillier. Every character in Wick’s world thinks they’re a poet and they’re all mistaken, and yet their clumsy fortune cookie platitudes are a welcome break from the constant self-conscious, faux-witty banter of Marvel movies and Ryan Reynolds vehicles. John Wick: Chapter 4 is sometimes screamingly funny, but that comedy is all derived from well-timed and cleverly-staged action bits rather than from characters commenting on how “that just happened.” No one ever, ever questions the logic of a world in which 90 percent of people are professional killers, or makes light of the fact that a guy has just been hit by a car into the side of a second car, and then gotten back up. That’s our job. The film’s nonsensical reality remains unbroken, allowing it to hold together like an index card and an overturned pint glass. While other, equally ridiculous action films race to mock themselves before the audience gets the chance, John Wick dedicates that energy to proving that everything that’s dumb about it is actually rad. That level of confidence grants a movie that is, essentially, about nothing, a kind of invincibility. Like the tactical lining of John’s suit jacket, it’s light, thin, and completely bulletproof.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.