John Wick: Chapter 4 (JW4) is easily the most ambitious entry in this kick-ass franchise. It’s a samurai-spaghetti western-gangster movie mashup guaranteed to thrill die-hard John Wick fans.
With anticipation for a new John Wick movie at an all-time high, one question keeps coming up: Is John Wick: Chapter 4 the best film in the series?
Well, that question isn’t so easy to answer.
It’s impressive how much this series has levelled up since its 2014 debut. Director Chad Stahelski conceived John Wick as a gritty New York crime flick and shot it on a paltry $20 million budget. Since then, it’s grown into a blockbuster action series taking place over multiple continents and starring a sprawling international cast.
John Wick worked so well because it told a tight, self-contained story that felt like part of a much larger world. The film’s intriguing mythology and colourful characters compensated for its modest budget and the plot’s relatively low stakes. Once John Wick became a hit, Stahelski finally cut loose and delivered the explosive action epics he had lacked the resources to shoot.
Much like Fast & the Furious titles, each new John Wick installment attempts to go bigger and bolder than its predecessors. And that’s how we ended up with the behemoth of a movie I’m writing about today.
JW4’s plot is as lean as one of John Wick’s tailored black suits.
The story picks up soon after John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, with John (Keanu Reeves) mending his wounds and plotting revenge against the High Table. Even though he’s obligated to serve these ruthless crime lords, it’s an uneasy alliance. The High Table view John like a rabid dog who will turn on them the first chance he gets.
John discovers a loophole that allows him to cut ties with the High Table by winning a duel with its senior member, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård). The Marquis understands he’s no match for Mr. Wick, so he blackmails a blind assassin named Caine (Donnie Yen) into fighting John on his behalf.
And to muck things up further, there’s a multi-million-dollar contract on John’s head. So, on top of everything else, the world’s top assassins are out to stop John from making it to the duel.
JW4 has a stacked cast who make the most of their limited screen time. The one exception is Skarsgård, whose Marquis is the franchise’s most forgettable villain yet.
Series staples Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick, and Ian McShane are once again pitch-perfect. They bring complexity and charm to minor characters who could easily come across as one-dimensional in a lesser actors’ hands.
Series newcomers Hiroyuki Sanada, Shamier Anderson, Rina Sawayama, and Scott Adkins make believable badasses who show they can hold their own in the John Wick universe. (Watching Adkins kick ass in a fat suit is one of 2023’s pure pleasures).
But of all the new additions, it’s action movie legend Donnie Yen who steals the show. Yen radiates movie star charisma, shining with the light of a thousand suns. Yen’s Caine is cool under pressure, lightning quick with his fists, and most impressively, a believable threat for New Jersey’s very own Baba Yaga.
JW4’s gallery of villains and anti-heroes isn’t cinema’s most well-rounded cast of characters, but they’re right at home in a stylish action flick. I would happily spend money to see them star in their own John Wick sequels, prequels, and spinoffs.
If you appreciate complex martial arts choreography like you’re an action movie sommelier, JW4 will leave you in the throes of punch-drunk ecstasy. Expect three hours of furious fistfights, stylish cinematography, and some of the industry’s best stunt performances.
The film’s heavy emphasis on violent spectacles will leave many people cold. The most thrilling action movies use action sequences to punctuate the story. But it feels like the reverse here. The plot exists only to string together a series of set pieces. JW4’s unruly length doesn’t help the issue. If shootouts and Kung Fu aren’t your cups of tea, you’re in for a mind-numbing hell.
To be clear, I’m not in that camp. I would be down to watch a five-hour cut of this film. But I also recognize that self-indulgence is a filmmaker’s worst enemy. And there’s no arguing that this three-hour barrage of bullets and broken bones isn’t full of itself. As much as I enjoyed this film, I know that it’s not the best version of a John Wick movie. But at least it’s in the ballpark.
And hey, I get it. JW4 isn’t Hamlet or Tár, and it’s not trying to be. It has “a very specific set of skills,” and the film demands you meet it on its terms. Stahelski invites viewers to watch an action legend do legendary $#!t. This film has style to spare, but any movie clocking in at three hours better also have a compelling emotional hook.
In John Wick, John fought for revenge. In the next two films he fought to survive. And now we’re at the point where he’s simply fighting not to die. As each installment’s budget went up, the emotional stakes diminished. JW4 lacks the strong emotional throughline that first drew fans to the series. The best version of one of these flicks will speak to my heart and my lizard brain. It shouldn’t be either or.
Stahelski set a high bar for John Wick: Chapter 4, and I’m impressed by the visceral thrills the film delivers. But as much as I enjoyed returning to John Wick’s world of secret societies and stylish assassins, I’ve never cared about them less.