John Wick Chapter 4 (United States, 2023)

March 25, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
John Wick Chapter 4 Poster

John Wick has lost his mojo. The aspect of this franchise that made it compulsively watchable for the first two installments has degraded during the last two. John Wick has always been a comic book-style property (although Chapter 4 feels more like a video game template, right down to some of the camera angles). The thing that (at least in the early installments) differentiated it from countless other post-Newtonian action films was its sardonic, whimsical tone. The first two films brought a freshness to an often-stale genre. The stunts, fights, and action scenes were presented with flair and style. With Chapter 3 (Parabellum), however, things took a turn for the somber. The movie took itself too seriously – a flaw that has only been exacerbated with Chapter 4. This latest (last?) film in the John Wick cycle buys into the idea that this is some kind of epic action opera, replacing gallows humor with Biblical allusions and mystical weirdness.

The franchise’s downturn has less to do with the director than the screenwriting. Before making his directorial debut with John Wick, Chad Stahelski made his bones doing stunt work and his background informs his approach. All four John Wick films look like they were made by the same team. All are visually inventive and make the most out of their sometimes exotic, sometimes prosaic locations (Chapter 4 takes the story from New York to the Sahara, Osaka, Berlin, and Paris). The homage to Walter Hill’s The Warriors (with a D.J. issuing directions to a bounty’s location) is perfectly in keeping with the aesthetic. But the writer of John Wick and John Wick Chapter 2, Derek Kolstad, had to share credit for Chapter 3 with Shay Hatten. He is entirely absent from Chapter 4 but Hatten is back, this time joined by Michael Finch, whose previous credits include The November Man and Hitman: Agent 47. It is any surprise that John Wick 4 is such an overlong slog?

Putting aside background information, one genuine shock, and the introduction of several new characters, the first hour could easily be dispensed with (or at least greatly condensed). The movie doesn’t hit it stride until it reaches Berlin (which features the movie’s best scene – a game of cards featuring a kingpin who learned his life lessons from two Bond villains: Goldfinger and Jaws) then accelerates to its final, Western-themed confrontation. Many of the action sequences, especially during the first half, have an obligatory feel, almost as if they exist simply to remind us of what a badass John Wick is. Later in the film, things get ridiculous – consider the race to the top (then back to the bottom) of the 270 steps leading to the summit of the hill of Montmarte. The film doesn’t have its tongue lodged deeply enough in its cheek for this to truly work. Indeed, during the course of John Wick Chapter 4, the character’s body takes such a licking that even Arnold’s T-800 might cease functioning. At one point, he gets hit by at least four cars and barely shows a limp. Granted, we’re not looking for realism here, but this is so deep into the realm of action-comedy parody that it needs a lighter tone.

Reeves’ Wick has grown increasingly glum over the course of the four films. His character is defined by four traits: he mourns his dead wife and the chance at freedom and happiness that died with her, he is constantly betrayed, he kills lots of people, and he seemingly can’t be stopped (even by the best and most lethal in the business). Chapter 4 takes a few chances with the formula toward the end, and to its credit, it doesn’t conclude with an elaborate orgy of bloodletting (there are plenty of those earlier in the proceedings). The climax is quietly satisfying but it takes more than 2 ½ exhausting hours to get there and I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Chapter 4 opens a short time after the conclusion of Chapter 3. John Wick has recovered from the injuries sustained from falling off the Continental Hotel’s rooftop (after being shot). He is being “cared for” by the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who has also returned to health after being brutalized by The Adjudicator (who strangely does not make a return appearance in Chapter 4, despite that being foreshadowed at the end of the previous installment). John’s raison d’etre is revenge upon everyone who has wronged him, including every member of The Table and The Elder (George Georgiou). The mercurial Winston once again becomes an ally when The Marquis (Bill Skarsgard), having been granted unlimited powers by The Table, takes action against The Continental. In Japan, John seeks out one of his few remaining allies, the Manager of the Osaka Continental, Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanda). Meanwhile, he is the target of two elite assassins – former friend Caine (Donnie Yen) and the mysterious Tracker (Shamier Anderson), who goes by the name of “Nobody.” Also on the hunt is The Marquis’ right-hand man, Chidi (Marko Zaror). John’s end-game involves challenging The Marquis to a duel; if it’s handled according to Table rules, victory could grant him freedom. (While a loss would grant him another form of it.)

Keanu Reeves is what he always been in the John Wick movies: a relatable touchstone – the ultimate laid-back actor playing a ruthless killer. What might seem like a disaster on paper nevertheless works. Any doubts about the casting were nixed as soon as the first movie was released. He is once again joined by former Matrix cohort Laurence Fishburne, scene-stealing Ian McShane, and the late, lamented Lance Reddick (who has less screen time here than in any of the previous John Wick movies). Newcomers to the franchise include the legendary Hiroyuki Sanda and Donnie Yen, Shamier Anderson (who might be on tap for a spin-off), and veteran heavy Clancy Brown. Bill Skarsgard proves that he doesn’t have to dress as a clown and live in sewer to play someone totally evil.

Soon after the release of John Wick, Stahelski revealed that plans were afoot for a trilogy. Over time, the franchise’s growing box office prowess argued for an extension of the trilogy into a tetralogy. Although this may have enriched the coffers of everyone involved, it came at the expense of storytelling. John Wick Chapter 4 has its high points, including a well-earned ending, but it’s characterized by an exhaustive repetitiveness that diminishes what was so good and unique about the first two installments of the series. The time has come to put John Wick to rest.

John Wick Chapter 4 (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 2:49
U.S. Release Date: 2023-03-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Genre: Action/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1