“You are now in the presence of the muthafuckin’ KING!” proclaims Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King in the opening moments of John Wick: Chapter 4. Presumably he’s referring to himself, given his self-appointed title as leader of a network of homeless assassins and informants, but given that he prefaces this line with text from The Divine Comedy (particularly The Inferno), and the whole sequence is intercut with images of Keanu Reeves punching a bloodied pad while the Bowery King delivers him a suit, it’s very clear he’s talking about Wick, a man who has been cast into the depths of his own personal Hell, and who is now ready for his deliverance. The sheer emotion and adrenaline of this introduction grips the viewer intently, and thankfully never lets go.
I mentioned in my review of the previous franchise entry that Parabellum felt more like a bridge film than its own standalone story. In essence, Reeves, along with director Chad Stahelski, used that movie as a means to wash away the rather low stakes motivations of the first two adventures (which centered on Wick coming out of retirement to exact vengeance on gangsters who killed his dog and stole his car) to the much more weighty odyssey of blood that awaited him, as he prepared to extricate himself from the life of a contract killer once and for all, even if that meant taking down the entire High Table organization that continually toys with him like a puppet while sending waves of goons to dispatch him.
Using the last picture as high-octane table-setting was a bit of a drawback, but it saves the already committed audience some much-needed time in this climactic entry that comes in at nearly three hours, by far the longest in the series. Dispensing with much of the established exposition and getting right to the action, Wick rides through the desert on horseback to take out The Elder (George Georgiou), serving notice to the High Table that he will win his freedom by any means necessary, after somehow surviving being shot by Winston (Ian McShane) and falling several stories at the end of the last film.
The idea of consequences weighs heavily on the proceedings this time out, with Wick’s refusal to die prompting the arrival of a Harbinger (Clancy Brown) and the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (an excellently smarmy Bill Skarsgård) to deconsecrate the New York Continental, leaving Winston and his concierge Charon (the late great Lance Reddick) at the Table’s mercy, of which there is very little. Along similar lines, what few friends John has left in the world are subject to retribution for their loyalty. Gramont conscripts a blind former associate named Caine (Donnie Yen realizing the full potential of his character from Rogue One) with the threat of his daughter’s life in exchange for John’s, the manager of the Osaka Continental (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter (Rina Sawayama) are put at risk when John seeks their aid, and his adoptive Belorussian family (led by Natalia Tena) become targets as punishment by their mere existence. Through it all, John is also tracked by a “hunter” who refers to himself as “Nobody” (Shamier Anderson), an assassin with an adorable dog of his own who waits for the open contract on John (held over from the last film) to reach a high enough total to be worth taking him down.
The entire series has featured moments where cause and effect take on poignant meaning, but never more so than in this movie. From the very first scenes of the franchise we’re made to see the consequences of the characters’ actions, many of them often unforeseen or unforeseeable. Alfie Allen never thought that stealing a car would unleash a lethal demon upon him and his family. John himself couldn’t predict that giving his marker to an untrustworthy person would force his hand so much that he’d run afoul of the entire High Table. These are already established instances, but the theme is kicked into overdrive here, as Gramont, a sniveling, elitist popinjay, uses his position of power to pontificate on the importance of rules and order, all the while flouting them whenever it suits his purposes. It’s an exemplary visual juxtaposition, as a man who truly feels like he’s above the law is still vehement about enforcing it upon those he considers beneath him. Meanwhile John, who’s put his life on the line nearly every waking moment we’ve seen him, keeps getting bombarded by reminders of how a moment of impulsiveness can come back on him tenfold.
Contrasting this idea while also reinforcing it is that of equity. Both Caine and Nobody are made to understand in very stark and unforgiving terms that they are seen as commodities by the High Table. The same goes for Koji and Akira in Osaka. As such, in spite of the very deadly game they all play, there’s a large degree of respect between John and those who seek to end him. What they consider an act of service, someone like Gramont sees as servitude, and the way they treat each other could not be more different. No better is this illustrated than in a tense game of poker with a German boss (Scott Adkins) where both Caine and Nobody outright aid John in his bloodbath, knowing that he needs to live until the time is right for them to collect his head. Previous films have seen underlings and henchmen of the main antagonist get a good deal of screen time, usually as an obstacle or cheeky bit of hero worship. But for the first time, it’s clear that John is working with true peers. He may be the most deadly killer in the world, but he can’t live forever – and obvious spinoff/sequel baiting aside – all of these side characters are designed to embody some aspect of Wick’s persona and mythos in a way that complements him in the moment but also allows for future expansion on their own.
As before, the stunt work and fight choreography are on another level from anything else in the genre, with Reeves himself reportedly performing about 90% of his own combat. Donnie Yen is an absolute marvel in his own right, employing insane spatial awareness as a tool to deal out his own brand of harshness, including some non-lethal techniques that help to humanize Caine as a person rather than an instrument of death. Not to be outdone is the continually stellar production design, bathing every major action sequence in brilliant hues of blue, red, green, and white depending on the moment, all against gorgeous set pieces evoking everything from European rave dances to ancient Japanese art.
But as is always the case, Stahelski is there to up the ante on the visual presentation once again, finding new and innovative ways to convey the crucible of combat, from a Frogger-esque scene at the Arc de Triomphe to a jaw-dropping top-down perspective in a disused manor house where Wick and the cannon fodder perform their literal dance of death in several long-take shots. And just for fun, there are some giddy references and homages peppered throughout the proceedings, including a reimagining of the flame-to-desert match cut of Lawrence of Arabia and a loving nod to the late Lynne Thigpen’s DJ character from The Warriors. All of this helps to build a motif that keeps you so engaged that you never even notice that over two and a half hours have passed in this thing.
Yes, there are flaws here and there. An action scene at a dance club is most memorable for the fact that none of the dancers seem to react to any of the violence until it’s gone on for a considerable length of time. The trope of John’s nigh-invincibility when it comes to being hit by cars finds its nadir in a late scene where literally every goon gets killed when they get tagged by a bumper yet John is still fine. Putting Scott Adkins in a fat suit was… a choice. John’s own dog only gets a late cameo despite being the cuddliest, bestest girl on the planet. There are obvious dangling plot threads that exist only to set up future spinoffs that are in no way needed.
But when it’s all said and done, this film delivers the exact finale to the main John Wick canon that we all wanted, while still leaving just enough room for a continuation down the road if there’s a demand for it. The stakes have been raised to their absolute zenith, with Reeves meeting the moment every step of the way, resulting in a satisfying and cathartic conclusion that solidifies the legacy of not only the character, but of his legend. In doing so, Stahelski and his amazing team have done nothing but raise the bar for action films as a whole, showing audiences what can truly be done by dedicated professionals at the top of their game when they commit to a good idea rather than just churning out the bare minimum to maintain a franchise.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What has this series meant to you as a fan of action movies and cinema in general? Is it humanly possible to look cooler than Keanu in a suit? Let me know!