Vague Visages’ John Wick: Chapter 4 review contains minor spoilers. Chad Stahelski’s 2023 movie stars Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen and Bill Skarsgård. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
The John Wick films belong to a lineage of comic book-like productions. In the visual structure, the style is elaborated by italicized subtitles, with certain words highlighted for emphasis, and fluid editing. While Chad Stahelski’s 2023 film occasionally confounds its own suspension of disbelief, it closes out the franchise with courage.
John Wick: Chapter 4 takes place some indeterminable amount of time after its predecessors as Keanu Reeves’ title character continues his violent quest for alleged peace, knowing that he can’t be free until his enemies are gone. Despite a well-paced script, it takes longer for the first action sequence to hit than in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019). The nearly three-hour runtime commences with minor character struggles but culminates without any. Like its immediate predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 4 warps across the globe in a way that makes it difficult to gauge how much time has passed between scenes.
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The John Wick franchise started with a simple inciting incident — a retired hitman seeks revenge after his dog gets killed — and has become the story of a globe-spanning secret society of assassins and overlapping crime organizations. It is nonetheless refreshing that these movies keep audiences contained within their world. And the lack of police means that the rules and consequences become the sole social focus, even if part of the intrigue comes from not knowing those rules as clearly as the characters.
Just as the coded language, blood oaths and dead friendships strengthen more than slow the script in John Wick: Chapter 4, the economy of motion and fluidity of combat is augmented more than stifled by additional tools, from former colleagues clashing in culturally distinct fencing styles to one of the least graceful but nonetheless most brutally efficient deployments of nunchaku. The judo throws, jiu-jitsu holds, kickboxing and other hand-to-hand fighting styles return with grit and glamour. And as the lore has developed lots of moving parts around the story, Kevlar-coated suits make the many disposable henchmen harder to kill. While drawing viewers further from reality, the relatively impervious nature of the protagonist extends somewhat to his enemies, though this also means that some deaths feel arbitrary, even if the brutality remains consistent. In turn — and this is a wider issue across action films — it can be hard for certain deaths to resonate in a film full of corpses, especially if one doesn’t have time to better understand certain characters, due to their limited screen time. This imperviousness and warped relationship to death reminds of the video games even more than comics.
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The deepening world of the John Wick franchise invites a wealth of new characters, most notably Bill Skarsgård as the main antagonist (Marquis), Hiroyuki Sanada as a hotel manager (Shimazu), Rina Sawayama as his second-in-command (Akira), Shamier Anderson as an enigmatic tracker (Tracker) and Donnie Yen as a father in a dilemma (Caine). Much as with Bullet Train, I was ecstatic to see Sanada and wish there was more of him, though John Wick: Chapter 4 is more efficient with his time on screen. I also could have used more Lance Reddick and Laurence Fishburne. While none of these characters are completely flat, all the returning ones (such as secondary protagonist Ian McShane as Winston) come with the built-in expectation that audiences have seen the other franchise films. Just as Yen developed a martial arts style for Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), he appears to have honed another blind swordsman discipline for this character, and it’s awesome. Scott Adkins’ Killa will likely be controversial, though the character is effectively violent enough that the makeup might not spur an instinctive critical pan.
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John Wick: Chapter 4’s impressive cinematography initially utilizes wide-angle shots of exotic locales and develops tension and intensity through close-ups; however, toward the end of the film, the close-ups begin to feel like a crutch — an attempt to incorporate emotional depth and resonance without ever developing characters’ personalities because of the emphasis on fight scenes. Also, toward the end of John Wick: Chapter 4, there is an homage to a cult classic action thriller that becomes a main wrinkle of the third act. It’s like the filmmakers decided to include a remake within the main narrative. Thematically, it fits. But the copy-paste job, down to dialogue and musical choices, feels too cute. Within that little channel, a genre reference is literally spelled out, with writers Shay Hatten and Michael Finch too self-assured of their cleverness. They also felt the need to have a character explain the key to another character’s moment of strategic triumph at the climax, so maybe they’re unsure of the audience’s intelligence.
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John Wick: Chapter 4 is a jet-setting combat film that remains slimmer than its franchise contemporaries (James Bond, Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious). While it’s unlikely to re-orient one’s understanding of what is possible with cinema, it is indeed a rewarding viewing experience; an exhilarating action film that takes itself and its bizarre world seriously. John Wick: Chapter 4 is a fitting conclusion to the series. Stahelski, Derek Kolstad and their hundreds of collaborators should be proud of what they’ve done for American action films.
Kevin Fox, Jr. (@KevinFoxJr) is a freelance writer, editor and film critic. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine and People’s World. Kevin has an MA in history, loves audiovisual entertainment and dreams of liberation. Check out his Substack at kfjwrites.substack.com.
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