The incredible, intense, and innovative action is ultimately overwhelming, overdrawn, and results in an overlong movie.
One-man action movies—like the Keanu Reeves-led John Wick: Chapter 4—have to maintain a delicate balance. The protagonist must go through the seemingly never-ending fodder while looking appropriately heroic. But he—and in most cases, it is a he—mustn’t look untouchable otherwise the stakes are visibly lowered. At the same time, the action though clearly superhuman shouldn’t defy logic or make the nameless and faceless parties chasing our protagonist look incompetent. The new near-three-hour-long John Wick film—from returning director Chad Stahelski—pushes and bends and warps all that to its breaking point. As the relentless action numbs and overwhelms you, inviting you to explore the world around Reeves, John Wick 4 starts to fray at the edges. Literally.
Don’t get me wrong, a chunk of it is really good. Donnie Yen (Rogue One) casually slurps soupy noodles just prior to a fight where he toys with his opponents and your leanings. Reeves uses a car’s doors to crack a few skulls and then runs literal rings around others while relying on his expert aim. Nunchucks, playing cards, and a German shepherd are deployed to theatrical yet hilarious effect. A battle up the Rue Foyatier turns into a Charlie Chaplin-esque Sisyphean task. In the busy exchange of the Arc de Triomphe, hitmen dodge traffic and bullets to lay claim on a multi-million-dollar contract. Elsewhere, more assassins are dispatched with fiery aplomb in a long take top-down sequence that’s possibly my favourite.
Like a video game
But it just eventually becomes too much—it feels like overeating by the time you’re done. With a threadbare narrative, John Wick is thrown into fight after fight, with many of the sequences feeling like a side-quest borne from another side-quest. John Wick: Chapter 4 is very video game-y. (See: top-down sequence. And how headshots are dealt with the precision of a Counter-Strike teenage prodigy who has nothing else to do with his life. In fact, it might have been better off as a game, you could argue.)
Its combat sequences—though elaborately constructed and executed—run longer than they need to. (The Arc de Triomphe and Rue Foyatier ones are among those that drag.) Owing to those, its earnest and sincere zeal towards ceremonial affection, a bunch of scenes that could be conveyed in one sentence, and a new character whose presence is never really justified, John Wick 4 is overlong. It’s one thing to prize maximalism, but something else entirely when you make that the ethos of everything in your film. (Stahelski has claimed that he’s seen it over a hundred times and never got “bored”, but he’s too close to the action to recognise its faults.) John Wick: Chapter 4 is high on its own self-belief—and that is its undoing.
John Wick 4: the plot
Six months on from John Wick: Chapter 3, the titular former hitman (Reeves) travels to Morocco to kill the one guy who sits above the High Table, the aristocratic organisation that Wick has been trying to escape since the first film. But when that backfires and a powerful High Table member, the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård), sends everyone after him, Wick is forced on the run from Osaka to Berlin to Paris. Like the film’s action, it’s like a video game quest. To free himself, he must align himself with a crime family. But to join them, he must take out someone they want revenge on. And none of this is even conveyed an hour into John Wick 4, because, well, Stahelski wants an extended sequence in Japan that half feels like an audition tape for what he’d bring to his Ghost of Tsushima movie.
Along the way, Shay Hatten and Michael Finch—the writers of John Wick: Chapter 4—devote time to introducing new characters. Hiroyuki Sanada (Rush Hour 3) and singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama play a father-daughter duo, and the film hints at a possible spin-off with the latter. Shamier Anderson (Wynonna Earp) shows up as an unnamed bounty hunter alongside his beloved dog that’s a naked reference to the first John Wick movie. But the film has no clear idea of what they want with him. John Wick 4 lifts from comic book movies elsewhere, chiefly in Scott Adkins (The Legend of Hercules) playing a take on DC’s Penguin, replete with a fat suit and all-purple clothing. Adkins is part of an unintentionally funny sequence where clubgoers are blissfully dancing while people are getting murdered left right and centre.
Sincerity triumphs over comedy in John Wick 4
On one level, it’s smart of Stahelski and Co. to surround Wick with many characters. The wooden Reeves has limited range and why he’s given very little dialogue for that reason. And while he’s terrific with the stunt work that is asked of him, you can tell how much better everyone else—be it Yen, Sanada, McShane, Fishburne, or Skarsgård—is when it comes to character scenes. Some of them add to the film’s seriousness, while others contribute to the humour. In places, the comedy stems from the beatings being dished out or the sheer ordeal of a task. It’s not a barrel of laughs but John Wick: Chapter 4 knows how to earn one, with the gory and gruesome nature of the film adding to the particular flavour of it all.
But John Wick 4’s self-awareness never transcends solemnity. If anything, the film is sincere to a fault. There is a lot of emphasis on tradition, rules, dignity, manners, and a code of conduct. But not only is much of that a veneer of refinement on the true nature of their trade, but the extravagant testosterone and egotistical displays of hypermasculinity are also exhausting.
Speaking of extravagance, the sets of John Wick: Chapter 4—Kevin Kavanaugh returns as production designer—are built to call attention to themselves. With minimalist décor, artsy lighting (“neon-noir”, as the Wick films have been described), and a variety of massive indoor sets or locations (they filmed in the Louvre), John Wick 4 is gorgeous to behold. Franchise veteran cinematographer Dan Lausten’s camera elegantly glides through it—never calling attention to itself—holding long enough on the action to wow you and on the pause to let you take it all in.
John Wick 4 is overstuffed and full of itself
And there’s a lot to take in here. John Wick: Chapter 4 serves up a mega-sized buffet of action set pieces—Reeves and Stahelski have spoken about how this may be the final one (at least for a while) and you can tell from how they stuff it with every idea they possibly had—that try to distract you from the weaknesses. Wick’s anonymous cannon-fodder foes sign their death warrants the moment they step on the stage. There’s a suspicious lack of governmental authorities—no police nor passport control—that shows the ludicrous nature of its universe. And there’s little plot or character work, with the film showing no interest in how these people feel or what they do when they are not killing.
All that said, it’s hard to argue against the sheer adrenaline thrill that John Wick 4 delivers. Sure, there are just too many dishes and the size of the portions is out of control, but you can’t escape its butt-clenching intensity. John Wick: Chapter 4 delivers on what you expect from a John Wick movie—I just wish it wasn’t overstuffed and so full of itself that it threatens to crowd out its best bits. It could do well to learn from its lean, mean, killing machine.
John Wick: Chapter 4 released on March 24 in India. IMAX previews began on the evening of March 23. In India, the fourth John Wick movie is available in English, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu.