Review: In John Wick: Chapter 4 the Assassin Turns Superhero, with Action Scenes (and a Runtime) to Match

I’ve long given up on trying to recall or understand the mythology behind the John Wick movies. I kind of remember that the 2014 original was the decidedly simple story about the former assassin (played with an effortless coolness by Keanu Reeves) seeking revenge on the people who killed his dog, blew up his house, and stole his car. But even within that initial chapter, we get hints of a bigger world of international hitmen when Wick arrives at the Continental Hotel, a safe haven for criminals run by manager Winston (Ian McShane) and concierge Charon (played by the late great Lance Reddick). The hints of a bigger criminal world were tantalizing; subsequent deep dives into the goings-on of the so-called High Table operation have had mixed results.

But returning director Chad Stahelski (a former stunt coordinator on such films as The Matrix films) had brought in top talent both in front of and behind the camera, and each new John Wick chapter has featured top-tier performers and stunt people, and for fans of big, inventive, physics- and logic-defying action, the results have changed the face of the genre. With John Wick: Chapter 4, Wick still has a price on his head, but he’s been told of a way out of his conundrum and put him on the path to freedom that is too complicated to explain here or anywhere other than a film that runs nearly three hours. 

Going into the plot of Chapter 4 may be a fool’s journey, but talking about the new faces that take the journey with him is the coolest. The legendary Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen (the Ip Man franchise, Rogue One) shows up as old friend and blind assassin Caine (clearly modeled after Zatoichi, the blind swordsman character), who never really seems to want Wick dead even though killing him will free his family from harm’s way; Hiroyuki Sanada and Rina Sawayama play the father and daughter who run the Osaka version of the Continental as manager and concierge, who begrudgingly harbor Wick for a time until he figures out his next move; Chilean action star Marko Zaror is on hand as the right-hand man to the film’s real villain and High Table representative, Bill Skarsgård’s the Marquis; and Clancy Brown pops in from time to time as something of an adviser to the Marquis, but really he’s making sure the High Table’s interests are being represented and protected.

Perhaps the most compelling new character is the assassin who simply calls himself Nobody (Shamier Anderson, who travels simply, with only a loyal dog by his side). It’s clear Wick sees a bit of himself in this younger man, who has no real loyalty except to those who pay him the most. And it’s always great to see Laurence Fishburne share the screen with Matrix buddy Reeves as the Bowery King, who runs the underground of apparently every city, not just New York.

It’s tough to pick a favorite Wick adversary in Chapter 4, but Skarsgård is really the only character who qualifies as fully villainous; the others seem to have fluid loyalties and are secretly rooting for Wick to achieve his freedom. The stunt sequences are some of the biggest and best you’ll ever see, including one set amidst the Arc de Triomphe’s roundabout, with traffic going in both directions and hand-to-hand fighters scattered throughout the cars zooming by. I realize special effects were used in the sequence, but even still, the results are impressive. A truly comical but still action-heavy moment involves Wick attempting to climb a massive outdoor staircase with 222 stairs (the Stairs of Montmartre, if I’m not mistaken) while fighting an endless barrage of bad guys. Just when he gets to the top, he gets knocked down the entire set of stairs and has to do it all over again. A particularly fun sequence involves Wick shooting a group of adversaries in a crumbling building with exploding bullets that actually set them on fire. The entire fight is shot from above with the camera able to pass through walls and ceilings in order to capture the action in largely unbroken shots.

My issues with Chapter 4 are minor and hardly make one any less able to love the film. Aside from the mythology being especially dense (there’s a whole chunk of the movie devoted to Wick’s former Russian “family” that I’m at a loss to explain) is that Wick is basically indestructible. Yes, I realize this is the building block of most Hollywood action movies, but in the earlier films, Wick was just good at not getting shot; in this latest installment, he gets shot, stabbed, punched, and even falls from a five-story window and lands on a car, and he walks away mostly okay. He’s become a superhero, and Wick’s strength was always his humanity. It doesn’t make me enjoy the work any less, but it makes his getting seriously hurt or killed seem less of an event.

The one issue I didn’t have with Chapter 4 is its length. The film feels like it has the perfect blend of blinding action mixed with downtime to do its damnedest to make some sense of the bigger-picture mythology. It’s also easy to appreciate the film’s final showdown (which I won’t spoil here) and how it takes its time in the name of building actual suspense as we wonder who will survive and how. In many ways, I wish this was the last of the John Wick movies, but with the fact that the original plan was to shoot parts four and five back to back, I’m guessing at least one more is coming. And then there's the already-shot spin off, Ballerina, starring Ana de Armas, and the series focusing on the early years of the Continental Hotel. I don’t know if we’re done with the Wick-verse, but it sure isn’t done with us.

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.