Updated: Apr 2
The John Wick saga has been blatantly special from the beginning. The super-stylized action series has always maintained three particular things in its now almost decade-long existence: 1) an earnest enthusiasm for the in-camera, analog action movie aesthetic, 2) a persistence for its nihilistic and joyous underground crime back-stabbing 3) and a leveraging of its own reputation as a gateway drug into spiritual predecessors and inspirations – white-knuckled Asian action cinema and 20th-century dime-a-dozen revenge flicks. All three concepts are featured in varying degrees throughout the first three films in the series, but they really do shine the brightest in John Wick: Chapter 4.
From its conception, the series was a game-changer. At the very least, its gnarly and precise action sequences were a refreshing break from most contemporary action releases. All four have been tightly plotted, extravagant genre exercises that have helped to bring the higher-concept, run-all-night fight movies back to the top of the box office menu.
While the previous three installments invested their time in somber, lonelier moments with John (especially its sentimental sad boy cinema hours in Chapter 2), Chapter 4 finds an aging Wick maneuvering out of his elongated grief period into a more realistic, bleaker acceptance. Now cooled off on the hardened revenge “Baba Yaga” mythos of the character, he finds himself in a desensitized haze wherein snapping a goon's neck or firing a semi-automatic weapon is as mundane to him as driving a car or brushing his teeth. He’s at the end of the hitman road – a defensive murder is more comforting to him than conversing or really having any sort of human interaction.
Dialing the overarching thematics of the series back in terms of plotting, director Stahleski devises a more sincere, poetic caliber to its scene-setting moments. That is, when he's not allocating major screen time for its elongated action sequences. It’s a self-assured move for a fourth entry in a high-budget action franchise to find time for both. Whether it’s a charcoal-black suited Wick on horseback in some sun-kissed imagery ripped straight from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Wick slo-mo charging through a German techno nightclub, stomping between dancing bodies to the beat of a heavy synth, the almost three-hour mammoth of a movie never lets up on its arresting imagery or impeccable vibes.
The newcomers to Chapter 4 are undoubtedly a highlight. A slew of genre gods and goddesses have joined the Wick parade (mainly looking at you, Donnie Yen, and king of the western DTV actioner Scott Adkins – in a fat suit, mind you) and they enliven the playing field quite a bit. Whether it be in the remarkable hand-to-hand choreography or the pulpiest dialogue exchanges you’ll hear this year, their appearances are as memorable as the heavy hitters who have been there since the beginning.
As for the set pieces, I’ll go so far as to say they’re some of the most impressive, not only of the series, but of the last decade. Director Chad Stahelski has made his Buster Keaton-like influences clear in the past few entries, not only by direct imagery, but the pure craft of putting bodies in peril for our terror and enjoyment. Movie magic, baby! This time around, Stahelski finds more inspiration from the late, great genre kings; I could literally feel my brain melting when I noticed imagery from John Woo’s The Killer and Hard Boiled or even Walter Hill’s The Warriors. If it wasn’t clear already, we are so back.
Both simple yet elaborate, the momentum of the action functions as a non-stop parade of cinematic whiplash. From the interlocking angry machinery of Wick weaving through fast-moving cars on the Arc de Triomphe, a cold blade piercing a warm gut in the interior of a neon-red Japanese hitman hotel, or even a 10-minute sequence of Wick making his way through an abandoned building filled with goons – equipped with his skills and a literal fire-breathing shotgun in the visual flare of Hotline Miami or Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes – it is impossible to feel let down. There is literally something for everyone.
As far as the Wick saga goes, Chapter 2’s lonely, wet, shattered glass aesthetic is my go-to, but Chapter 4’s action audacity alone places it not too far behind. It’s not only fully aware and committed to Wick’s threat neutralization, but seemingly injects its blood-knuckled, one-man army motif into every frame it can manage in its almost three-hour globe-trotting epic. As for where we go next, I’ve heard of rumblings about world expansion or even spin-offs, but by the token we're left with in Chapter 4, it’s important to remember that these larger franchises have the right (and permission) to conclude. Regardless of what's to come, this is 2023's first official face-melter. See it in theaters while you can.