Nearly a decade ago, we were introduced to the heavy on action, light on dialogue title that is John Wick. On paper the Wick series reads like any paint by number, straight to video action franchise. What has set it apart has been Keanu Reeves’ ability to commit to stunts, gun work, fight scenes, and director Chad Stahelski’s talent for keeping action sequences fresh.
Over the years the Wick series has pushed and evolved in its on-screen combat. The story has been pretty straightforward . The main character is an ex assassin, pulled into a war with a crime family through the memory of his wife and her kidnapped dog, which was all he had left to remember her. It was an odd but memorable catalyst and enough to launch us into the deeper story, involving the assassins guild and their chain of worldwide sanctuary hotels.
The Continental Hotel side stories and its employees are a lovely respite in the nonstop action of the Wick franchise. They create a rich backstory to delve into that counters the grim brutality of the nonstop headshots and muzzle flashes, Keanu Reeves gives us in every fight scene. It has been a winning formula that has carried us into four films and an inevitable tv series spinoff.
That recipe however, can only take an audience so far before the novelty wears out. Director and stunt savant, Chad Stahelski has worked hard to keep John Wick fresh, but in each iteration there’s only so many ways to kill people during 120 minutes of nonstop action sequences.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is an absolutely fantastic 90 minute movie. Unfortunately for viewers, the total running time is 169 minutes. It picks up immediately where John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum left off. Our title character is being hunted by the “table” aka the assassins guild and those who control them. He is on the run after having been betrayed by Winston, the manager of the Continental (always played wonderfully by Ian McShane).
The film tries to keep itself exciting, with new sexy locales and different fight sequences but for viewers, this is where the entire first half falls flat. The lighting and cinematography are really put on display for the Osaka and Berlin segments, but the scenes as a whole are entirely unnecessary to the story. Everyone shows up with gray, kevlar suits and falls into the same entrance and deathly exit over and over. It’s monotonous and immediately fatiguing. There are times it feels (and likely is) that the same stuntmen are fighting and dying in different outfits / disguises. The lone breath of fresh air is Donnie Yen who is introduced as Caine, the blind swordsman. He walks across water in every scene and is an immaculate fighter who brings excitement and grace to his sequences. He continually saves the movie every time it gets stale.
As we slog through Osaka and then Berlin, we watch Keanu deliver 6 words of total dialogue as if he’s recovering from a stroke and then jump into gunfire. Reeves has never been a tremendous actor and these films play into his strong silent persona well, but this is a bit much. He’s speaking less and less with each installment and struggling to get out his two or three words. It’s almost painful when he speaks, especially when everyone else delivers their lines normally.
I’m not sure if he’s had head trauma from stunts gone wrong or if this is by choice, but Keanu’s speaking cadence has gotten slower and stranger as the series has progressed. Also, let me iterate that he is still a great star with palpable screen presence, but the man is now 58 years old. How much hand to hand combat can we watch him do in long (single take) stretches with believability? There’s an entire segment on the first third of the film dedicated to nunchakus. There are plenty of guns available but to change things up, John Wick has to fight exclusively with nunchakus or hand to hand.
Again, I think it’s admirable to try and keep it interesting but the younger, beefier stuntmen were visibly slowing down in these segments, waiting for their moments to fight John Wick. It took believability off the table and much of the hand to hand fight scenes were too similar and sloppy. Keanu is a bit slower than he was a decade ago and the visible pauses between strikes and grappling with his stunt team were too obvious in choreography.
Then we get to Paris.
The movie should have started and ended here. The moment John Wick arrives in Paris for his impending boss battle, the movie hits overdrive and never looks back. This part of the film is easily worth the price of admission and will have your jaw on the theater floor. The Parisian segments bring the innovation and fun of the fight scenes that we’ve come to know and love from the franchise.
The Arc de Triomphe car chase, fight melee and 222 stairs leading to the Sacre Coeur are enough to hang any hat on for all 4 films. These scenes are career making (dare I say legendary?), iconic in scope, and something other action films should aspire to. The stunt work is insane, the scenes are long, complex, over the top, diverse, and it is classic John Wick chaos to its core. Cars, Guns, Swords, Falls, Flames, it is everything we wanted and hoped for.
John Wick: Chapter 4 also gives us some other characters worth mentioning. Bill Skarsgard as the Marquis is a decent enough bad guy, who needs to work on his French accent. We get a few fun moments from Laurence Fishburne (but not nearly enough), and a small taste of Hiroyuki Sanada and his swordplay. Donnie Yen and Keanu together on screen are fantastic in every way. Their shared scenes are fun, and provide great levity to the intense fighting segments they’re featured in. We get plenty of moments between them to cement their chemistry and really bring the ending home in a satisfying way.
Go see John Wick: Chapter 4, while in theaters as you’ll want big screen for both sound and action. Just don’t be mad at yourself if you fall asleep in the first half or show up late.