The bloodshed wasn’t necessary, says one of the many mavens of mayhem in John Wick: Chapter 4. The bloodshed was the point, his collocutor replies.
The latest entry in one of the most self-aware franchises constantly poses questions about its raison d’etre – and then answers them. Chad Stahelski’s movie reaches peak meta-ness when its gnomic hero battles a stream of adversaries at the foot of the steps leading to the Sacre-Coeur church in Paris and is then shoved back to the bottom, compelled to begin all over again.
Feared assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has been in a loop since the first movie from 2014. Right from when John avenged the killing of a puppy gifted by his beloved late wife, the netherworld – and action movies – have arguably never been the same.
Based on characters created by Derek Kolstaad and directed by Stahelski, each subsequent film raised the difficulty levels for its indefatigable and invincible hero. By John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019), John was on the run from the High Table, the organisation that decides how crime is conducted.
The rigidity of the High Table’s strictures, its highly stratified nature, the bureaucracy that administers this global network – the Continental chain of hotels meant only for professional killers, a private communication service run by heavily tattooed women – all contributed to a comic book-style parallel universe that exists beyond the pale of reality, let alone logic.
John now has only three allies to support his never-ending personal war against the High Table: Winston (Ian McShane), the dapper manager of the Continental’s New York outpost, that hotel’s smooth concierge Charon (Lance Reddick), and the maverick gang leader known as the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne).
John has other friends too, even if they are being paid to kill him. The sightless Caine (Donnie Yen) is hired by the High Table’s Marquis (Bill SKardgard) to eliminate John. Separately, bounty hunter Mr Nobody (Shamier Anderson) and his dog are in hot pursuit of John.
The film begins sluggishly, sending out alarm bells that Stahelski and writers Shay Hatten and Michael Finch have taken the franchise’s faux-solemnity to heart. Just like movie theatres bore audiences with trailers and commercials before rolling out the main feature, Chapter 4 makes us wait far too long for the new ways in which Stahelski has reimagined the action sequence.
On this score, the film never disappoints. Innumerable diehards take on the One Who Cannot Die, aiming blows, firearms, knives and whatever else is at hand only to be rebuffed in spectacular fashion. The desperate, kill-or-to-be killed quality to the brilliantly choreographed action almost justifies the bottom-warming 169-minute runtime.
Did John take on an army of desperadoes in the middle of traffic at the Arc De Triomphe? An extended confrontation in a Berlin nightclub between John and High Table heavy Killa (Scott Adkins) even as oblivious revellers writhe to techno beats is a welcome back-to-business sign after the slow-moving early portions.
Despite stretching out John’s agony, the film has plenty else to savour, from Dan Lausten’s evocative colour-coded cinematography to John’s colourful fellow travellers. A line about “ballistic chic” sums up the film’s attentiveness to its gangster cool aesthetic.
When will it end, John, Winston wants to know. Not so soon, Winston, not so soon. Ian McShane is a wry charmer the fourth time round. Laurence Fishburne has a few great scenes, while Bill Skarsgard’s slimy Marquis gives John a tough contest.
Donnie Yen, the Hong Kong martial arts star, is a delight as the blind terminator nearly as deadly as John. Yen provides comic relief alongside eye-popping action, which helps when his adversary is a laconic hitman who is happiest dodging bullets and blows.
Keanu Reeves, who is now 58, was born to play John Wick. It’s hard to imagine any other actor portraying John’s Sisyphean mission. But there’s a discernible touch of fatigue to Hollywood’s fittest action hero alongside Tom Cruise. Reeves’s dialogue delivery is more stilted than usual, with even his standard response “Yeah” sounding like fan service.