Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
There have been plenty of big budget, popular franchises recently, but none have been more surprising or satisfying as Keanu Reeves’ John Wick series. When the first trailer for John Wick (2014) was released, the enthusiasm couldn’t have been lower. The entire world was certain it was going to be a generic, run of the mill, forgettable action movie, which Reeves just signed on for to pay the bills. To everyone’s surprise, John Wick was nothing of the sort, turning out to be the most exciting, visceral and technically impressive neo-noir thriller in years. Practically overnight, Reeves became the toast of the town, and the fantastic sleeper hit gained two equally successful sequels, John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019). With the release of John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023), anticipation couldn’t be higher.
Over the course of the three previous adventures, former assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has left a trail of corpses in his wake, all kicked off by his initial quest to avenge the death of his dog Daisy (who was gifted to him by his late wife). The mysterious High Table (which rules over the secret society of assassins) has been actively working to take Wick down, but every attempt simply fuels Wick’s mission to defeat them. This time around, things kick off in a particularly shocking way, as Wick kills The Elder who sits above the Table. In response, they appoint The Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) with the singular mission of killing Wick. In order to survive, Wick needs the help of former friends Winston (Ian McShane), The Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne) and Shimazu Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada), but any who help him are in danger themselves.
If you ask anyone what they know about the John Wick films, they will tell you they are relentless action thrillers where Keanu Reeves takes on entire armies of goons single handedly. That assessment is most certainly true, but why are these bloody fight sequences so revered where similar sequences in similar films are derided? Quite simply, the John Wick films’ action sequences display the absolute pinnacle of filmmaking technique in practically every frame. With outstanding editing, expert shot composition, gorgeous production design, and purposeful visual direction, viewers can happily sit through endless punch ups and shoot outs, and it rarely becomes dull. In most films, the action sequences are the boring parts between the moments of true art, but in John Wick’s case, the action is the art. Each of these films have successfully upped the ante, and that continues to be the case with John Wick: Chapter 4.
20 years ago, the hot new trend in action cinema was shaky-cam, which created visual chaos and shielded the performers from needing to get their hands dirty. The current trend is to keep the camera steady and the shots wide, so the viewer can see every bone crunching hit clearly, which also makes us feel our performers are really taking these hits. The original John Wick began this trend, and the only films which seem to match it are its own sequels. Not since Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) has there been an action epic with as much directorial prowess, and not since Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018) has there been a thriller with as impressive stunt work. If there was ever a case for the Academy Awards to create a new category recognising stunt coordination, John Wick: Chapter 4 makes that case unequivocally.
No one is shocked to see that John Wick: Chapter 4’s moments of spectacle are topnotch. The real question is whether this instalment buckles under the weight of its near three hour runtime. The first two films clocked in at under two hours, while the third came in at two hours and ten minutes. Wall to wall action can be maintained when it’s only 100 minutes, but anything over the two hour mark may feel indulgent. That was the case with John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, which did wear out its welcome at points. With this fourth film being nearly a full hour longer, the chances of it being extremely gratuitous was high. John Wick: Chapter 4 is a three hour film which rarely feels its length. This is achieved by having only three to four major action beats, with the rest of the minutes filled with story development. Granted, there is one (very prolonged) instance where things indulge in the carnage a bit too much, but it also houses some of the most groundbreaking and creative set pieces.
Another key feature of this series is the carefully staged world building. The first film kept things focused on the main plot, but dropped hints at a larger story beyond the frame. Each sequel delved deeper into the complex (if a bit silly) web of secret assassins, eventually getting to a point where John Wick’s central character journey barely mattered. John Wick: Chapter 4 continues to expand the lore, but it knows not to add new elements this late in the game. Alternatively, it builds its story from the pieces left over from the previous films, meaning moments of character development can finally take the stage. Where the first film was a tight, no nonsense thriller, John Wick: Chapter 4 takes the form of a cinematic epic. The film is so self aware of the genre shift that it humorously draws parallels to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in its first minutes.
In true epic fashion, the colourful roster of characters each make a strong impression. As the series has progressed, Wick has been consistently joined by enjoyably evil villains, as well as strikingly cool allies. John Wick: Chapter 4 not only brings back many of the old favourites, but also introduces a handful of truly memorable newbies. Chief among them is Donnie Yen, Hiroyuki Sanada and Rina Sawayama as Caine, Shimazu Koji and Akira respectively, all of whom could be the centre of their own samurai film. Scott Adkins gives a hilarious performance as Killa Harkan, exhibiting more energy than villains with far more screen time. Shamier Anderson is a fun presence as Mr. Nobody and Bill Skarsgård is suitably slimy as The Marquis, even if their place in the narrative isn’t as tight as the other players. Unsurprisingly, the series mainstays Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Lawrence Fishburne and the late Lance Reddick are more than at home in their now iconic roles.
John Wick: Chapter 4 will probably be the most unsurprising hit since Avengers: Endgame (2019). It delivers everything you’d expect from the series at this point, meaning that viewers will surely get what they paid for in spades. If you’re not on the John Wick train, Chapter 4’s merits may be lost on you, but if you’re a fan it’ll be a dream come true.
Best way to watch it: To cap off a long, hard week and you need to decompress.