There is a go-for-broke, frenzied aura upon John Wick: Chapter 4. Even for a franchise so heavily steeped in bullets and body count, this outing finds a way to leave all its cards on the table. Seemingly fashioned with a “no bad ideas” ethos, John Wick: Chapter 4 gleefully trades in the kind of maximalist excess that characterized last year’s Babylon. In a similar fashion, not only does Chapter 4 endeavor to be a potentially final John Wick movie, it plays as an attempt at the last action movie ever made.
Following his improbable spill off the Continental rooftop at the close of Chapter 3, Keanu Reeves’ Boogeyman has taken refuge from the High Table––the invisible hand that controls this neon-coated world––in the company of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). In the wake of retribution from the powers that be, the two personae non grata embark on a globetrotting bloodbath to demolish it all from the top down. In their tracks is the lavish, scenery-chewing Marquis de Gramont played by a perfectly snaky Bill Skarsgård. He’s a High Table inquisitor of sorts, given carte blanche to kill Wick and his cohorts by any means necessary. This includes a bounty taken up by some new faces: Donnie Yen’s blind assassin Caine (get it?), and a ragtag Tracker-with-no-name (Shamier Anderson).
The particulars of this are best left un-prodded. This franchise has always had a penchant for moving goalposts when it comes to rules, things finite and irrevocable until they’re not. There’s always a loophole looming in the fine print that conveniently gets ignored because no one dared to ask. For all the chatter over the franchise’s world-building, it always seemed like extremely elaborate window-dressing. Like a number of Bill Skarsgård’s fabulous outfits, the rules of the larger universe indeed fall into that distinction: the appearance of sophistication to be enjoyed or ignored. What’s paramount is the spectacle. Grandiosity in mind, the merry chase leads Wick and Co. from New York to Osaka to Berlin to Paris in a Gun Fu epic that’s hellbent in milking every frame of its nearly three-hour runtime for brutal efficiency.
The locales on display feel appropriately ostentatious for the global grandeur the franchise now swings for. Everything exists as a proper exotic backdrop as opposed to a parking lot in whichever city gives the best tax incentive. Put simply: money’s on the screen. That’s not just in terms of baroque hotels, nightclubs, and clean-cut suits, but how director Chad Stahleski harmonizes every aspect of production. The star power of his ensemble, the precision of his stunt crew, and the prowess of his post-production team make it all move as one. The time spent in Osaka is particularly masterful. A particular highlight includes Donnie Yen moving like a velociraptor by way of Fred Astaire through a kitchen and dispatching anyone who might steal the bounty on Wick. He’s the Van Cleef to Keanu’s Eastwood, and in some respects the heart and soul of Chapter 4.
On the whole, Stahleski makes adequate room for every member of his cavalcade of carnage. In showcasing the supporting players––not just Yen and Anderson, but also action icon Hiroyuki Sanada and popstar Rina Sawayama, both bright spots––the director helps keep the gargantuan setpieces playing brisk instead of bloated, a few exceptions notwithstanding. Even Ian McShane and the late, great Lance Reddick squeeze in a handful of beats that are some of the film’s most emotionally potent. More voracious action viewers might recognize the appearance of DTV powerhouse Scott Adkins––a pioneer for the genre in his own right and no-brainer addition to the cast––as Killa, a Penguin-esque Berlin Kingpin who stands in Wick’s path to the High Table. Unfortunately for action die-hards, Adkins’ portion of the film is where it sags the most, even more than the inexplicable fat suit the film has deigned to trap the action star in. With indoor waterfalls on brutalist concrete and Schranz blasting across a leather-clad dancefloor, the Berlin set piece seems an aesthetic slam dunk in the John Wick universe, but its placement reeks of a video game side quest a leaner script would nix entirely. It’s not without merit, and even Adkins puts his skills on display through the needless prosthetics, but it’s the only sequence that feels truly born from Chapter 4’s kitchen-sink filmmaking. It’s a detour on the road to the film’s Parisian finale.
This final act is where Stahleski and Reeves’ opera truly sings. Not since Ethan Hunt destroyed a bathroom in the Grand Palais has an action movie had so much fun tearing up Paris. It’s a night of a million bullets gallivanting from one landmark to the next and evoking arcade logic everywhere. It’s got the DNA of more obvious action-shooters to the less-expected, like a Frogger fever dream in front of the Arc de Triomphe (complete with fanciful dog stunts!). If all of Wick’s adversaries are not long for this world, physics was first to bite the dust. Serving as a keen display of pacing, this extended romp acknowledges, even embraces that its runtime is closing in on 180 minutes. The more Wick blasts his way through, the more he seems to feel it to his core. Reeves has always excelled at portraying a certain weariness in the latter half of his career, but the manner in which he (and by proxy, the film) molds fatigue into a special effect here is frankly masterful. All culminates in a sight-gag punchline in Montmartre that received the film’s biggest laugh, and a proceeding stunt that is nothing short of comedic gold.
Such is the nature of the latest John Wick entry: its ambitions are plentiful, its assets as effective as they’ve ever been. If it threatens too much of a good thing, Chapter 4 benefits from a seemingly infinite well of creative ferocity that’s impeccably paced. And while one could belabor the ludicrous pratfalls and convoluted inner workings of the universe at large, the film acquits itself just fine with an Ian McShane proclamation: “Just have fun out there.”
John Wick: Chapter 4 opens in theaters on Friday, March 24.