At this stage of the game there seems nothing so unnecessary as a John Wick review. The fourth iteration of the Keanu Reeves-led action franchise opens in cinemas this week, and to a large extent everything that critics and reviewers wrote about the previous two sequels can be repeated for the third.
The original Wick – now nine years old – was a wonderfully stripped-back action film with a strikingly basic premise – a grieving assassin goes after the thugs that killed his dog – and some of the best action sequences and stunt choreography ever put on screen. It is the sequels that have come to define John Wick as a broader franchise. While the over-the-top and stylishly framed action has remained consistent, the wonderful purity of the original was replaced with a labyrinthine narrative of secret societies, quasi-religious ritual, and contemptable Eurotrash overlords uttering “Mr Wick” with egregious gravitas. It all remains an excuse to stage wonderfully funny and violent shoot-outs and sword fights, of course, but for my money “those guys killed my dog” tops “I must eliminate the heads of the High Table to bring down the structures that bind me to their world” every time.
Betrayed, shot, thrown off the top of a hotel, and left for dead by his one-time ally Winston (Ian McShane), fugitive assassin John Wick (Reeves) recovers with the help of disgraced underworld leader the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). When Wick resumes his violent crusade against the leaders of the assassin world, the powerful Marquis Vincent de Gramond (Bill Skarsgård) orders the blind operative Caine (Donnie Yen) to eliminate him for good.
The florid narrative is, ultimately, irrelevant. John Wick Chapter 4 exists to showcase a great cast – which also includes Hiroyuki Sanada, Scott Adkins, Natalia Tena, Clancy Brown, and pop singer Rina Sawayama – in great action sequences. They are, for the most part, brilliantly conceived and shot with a deliberate focus on showcasing the geography of each fight. There is no room for Bourne-derived shakycam here, which is of course the whole appeal of John Wick in the first place. A rolling single take sequence shot from above, and a perversely silly run-and-gun fight around Paris’ Arc de Triomph are particular highlights. Director Chad Stahelski has guided this series since the beginning, and his framing of the action seems to get better every time.
Keanu Reeves continues to play Wick in spectacular fashion. He has a brilliant handle on comedy, and is almost unsurpassed in his ability to look convincing getting beaten to a pulp (honestly it’s down to Reeves or Harrison Ford – still the unrivalled master at “punched in the face” expressions). In all honesty it would not be half the franchise without him at its centre. Donnie Yen is a hugely valuable addition, in a role seemingly tailored to his specific strengths. Other leading roles are very much filled via the Jerry Bruckheimer school of casting: put an A-grade actor in a B-grade part and they’ll perform mediocrity as if it’s Shakespeare. It is a bittersweet experience seeing Lance Reddick return as Winston’s concierge Charon – Reddick unexpectedly passed away over the past weekend, and the film is dedicated to his memory.
At a staggering 170 minutes, it is undeniable that John Wick Chapter 4 is too long. It turns out that, even in action cinema, you can get too much of a good thing. Still, if you have the patience for it, it is packed with entertainment value. Not as good as the original, but on a par with Chapter 3.
John Wick Chapter 4 opens in Australian cinemas today and in the USA tomorrow.