I’m a sucker for big, bombastic action movies. Put a middle-aged actor in a stoic role, give them a bunch of weapons, toss in a few explosions, and I’m there. Keanu Reeves has always been excellent in action movies—and in movies in general; that man can act—and the John Wick series is no different. Only time will tell, but John Wick: Chapter 4 may prove to be my favorite of the bunch. It’s certainly one of the best.
Poor John Wick (Reeves) has had a helluva six months (the first three movies are set over a week and a half, while several months pass between three and four). He lost his wife, his dog was killed, and his house was blown up. And he got sucked back into the life of assassins and baddies that he barely squeezed himself out of. He has few allies, and is losing more every day. With nothing left but a demand to be free, John takes on the High Table, the mysterious, omnipotent organization who rule the hitman world like gods. They put forth the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård), a brutal French aristocrat who revels in causing as much pain as possible, to run the show. With the bounty on his head ramping up and two new top assassins coming after him, the relentless Tracker (Shamier Anderson) and fellow “I was out until they pulled me back in” badass Caine (Donnie Yen), surviving the night will be the hardest thing he’s ever done. And then he still has to survive a duel with the Marquis. Cue explosions.
I think what I appreciate the most about this series, particularly Chapter 4, is how it doesn’t assume each sequel has to be bigger and badder than the previous. Sure, the set pieces here are wilder than in the first movie, but the heart and focus remain the same. If anything, the craft gets tighter and the skills more honed. Everyone behind and in front of the camera knows exactly what they’re doing. The stakes are the same as they’ve always been: John just wants to be left alone.
There’s something so primal about the John Wick series. They strike the balance of taking the genre seriously without overinflating their own sense of importance. The body count is staggering to the point of unbelievable. At the rate John goes through goons, I’m surprised the High Table has any staff left on the payroll. Bullets and fists fly faster than the viewer can keep track, but it’s all so tightly choreographed that somehow it still makes sense in the aftermath. Director Chad Stahelski started in filmmaking doing stunt work before moving up to action design and fight choreography, and all that skill is on display in Chapter 4. There are plenty of callbacks to cool action scenes from previous installments as well as all new scenes that will blow your mind.
The fight choreography paired with Dan Laustsen’s cinematography veers from competent craft-making to astonishing art. The entire Paris sequence is thrilling, and the audience I saw the movie with were shouting and cheering the whole way through. The two scenes shot largely from above and with the camera dancing around as John slaughters his way through low-level thugs for hire were absolutely stunning. The scene in the abandoned Parisian mansion was so incredible that when it ended I realized I was literally on the edge of my seat. Add to that the evocative use of lighting, from the flashes of neon to nighttime and shadowy scenes where you can still clearly see what’s happening without having to squint, and the viewing experience is a treat. The movie does a fantastic job of blending CGI, VFX, practical effects, and stunt work. In one fight scene set during rush hour traffic going around the Arc de Triomphe, John is constantly dodging goons, guns, and automobiles, but the cinematography and lighting are so crisp and the choreography so finely tuned that it flows seamlessly. You never have the feeling like you can’t tell what’s happening because of messy CGI or muddy lighting.
Of course, it helps to not think about how the goons are this universe’s version of stormtroopers in that you could give them an endless supply of ammo and position them five feet away from John and they’d still miss. Most of the high level assassins have bullet proof suits, which works until all these big, tough dudes have to run around with their jackets pulled up over their heads to protect from headshots. It looks ridiculous, and the movie just leans right on into it.
The main reason these movies work, however, are the actors. Reeves, Ian McShane (as Winston), Laurence Fishburne (as the Bowery King), and Lance Riddick (as Charon, *sobs uncontrollably*) put in hit after hit. The fourth installment also introduces longtime working actors Clancy Brown as the Harbinger, Hiroyuki Sanada as Shimazu, and Yen. These are working actors dedicated to their craft. No flair, no frippery. Don’t sleep on Shamier Anderson (Tracker) and Rina Sawayama (Akira), either. I hope we see their characters again in Chapter 5. If Hollywood were smart, their phones would be ringing off the hook with casting offers.
Reeves imbues John with depth and emotion, even if on the surface he seems taciturn and glowering. Other action movie actors would be tempted to ham it up, slather on the sarcasm, or play John like a good man in a bad situation. Reeves lets John be John, lets him be as violent as the story needs him to be while also showing humanity. John is (or at least aspires to be) a loving husband, something Reeves always keeps at the center of his performance.
If I had to change anything about Chapter 4, it would be the fatsuit. There is absolutely no reason to have Scott Adkins in a fatsuit except to mock fat people. Adkins’ Killa is sweaty and crass, a grotesque goblin of a man, of which his fatness is used as a reason to further despise him. His fatness is a literal representation of his gluttony and greed. They even have him repeatedly sucking on an inhaler (Hollywood, I’m begging you to learn how asthma works). It’s tempting to say they were showing a fat man with strength and power, but that’s immediately undercut by having him constantly falling with his ass toward the camera, a position that not even the faceless cannon fodder are reduced to. They could have cast a larger actor in this role if they really cared about depicting a variety of body types. Or they could have simply had Adkins not be in a fatsuit. But no, this was just another chance to spit on fat people. It’s a truly disappointing turn for an otherwise thrilling movie.
I’ll say this much about the long runtime for John Wick Chapter 4: I didn’t even notice it. I was hooked from the first punch. It was nonstop and full throttle. It could’ve been thirty minutes longer and I wouldn’t have minded. We may still get a fifth movie, but if this is where we bid farewell to Baba Yaga, at least he went out on a high.
Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).