Something special happens when you hit the fourth movie of a franchise. When you’re officially out of the trilogy phase, the world-building takes a bit of a back seat and you get to actually live in it for a while. Entering the fourth act of an arc imbues the world it creates with a different aura, because your audience is already strapped in, gunning the engine, and rocketing down the road. You don’t have to remind your audience of what’s happened before or what the rules are, and that gives a filmmaker some freedom to play around – to either subvert things completely or to just put a new wrinkle into a tried-and-true formula.
John Wick as a franchise was never going to get smaller. Each successive film has been bigger, more bombastic, and throws off the yoke of subtlety even more than the last. In Chad Stahelski’s latest, creatively titled John Wick: Chapter Four, practically everything – including a runtime that brushes up on three hours – is super-sized. In a John Wick movie, the franchise known for gleefully blowing the doors off and going way past what’s expected in terms of action set pieces and the martial arts legends and b-movie hidden gems that populate them, exceeding expectations is a tall order. Chapter Four does this not by intellectualizing or complex characterization, but by eschewing any of that in favour of longer, more elaborate fights. More than ever, John Wick: Chapter Four is comfortable enough in its own calloused, leathery skin to laugh at itself a bit as it’s kicking its actors down flights of stairs or off of high places.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Keanu Reeves’ eponymous Wick has run afoul of the gigantic, invincible, impenetrable Table organization. They’ll stop at nothing to hunt down the revenge-minded killer and their desperation after seeing him mow down anything that even hints at slowing him down is conveniently quantified by the ever-rising (and always displayed one way or another onscreen) price on Wick’s head. To end this, Wick is advised to use some old rules and a whole lot of plot armour to challenge the Table’s proxy, a violent psychopath called The Marquis (Bill Skarsgard), to a one-on-one duel to the death. In order to even make this challenge, Wick has to perform some video-game-esque side quests for his family which, spoiler, always involve kicking someone right in the fucking teeth. All of these things happen, and John Wick: Chapter Four delivers the best possible interpretation of these weary concepts by hiring modern masters Donnie Yen, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Scott Adkins and letting them run wild on Reeves and scores of disposable goons. All the while, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, and new addition (and a personal favourite) Clancy Brown quipping in the background add colour to the proceedings. Series newcomers Rina Sawayama and Shamier Anderson put in performances that make me want a spinoff featuring both, and knowing the way this franchise has aspirations to branch out, with planned Wick spinoffs based on the Continental hotel and and Ana de Armas’ Ballerina, that’s certainly possible.
And then there’s Lance Reddick. The John Wick mainstay and beloved actor passed away on March 17, just as the film was premiering around the world. Watching John Wick Chapter Four just hours after the announcement of Reddick’s death, in a theater where both Reeves and Stahelski were present, gave the movie an entirely different context. He was both warmly spoken about by the director and actor, and appreciated by the audience as his scenes came up in the film. Reddick is, as always, in the John Wick films as well as everything I’ve seen him in, here to add his specific brand of class and wisdom to the cast. In a very strange parallel to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (which had to grapple with the death of Chadwick Boseman, who played its main character), both the character Charon and the actor Reddick find themselves memorialized for a final time on screen, and it’s a beautiful and fitting moment.
I don’t have to tell you that the fight choreography in this movie directed by a fight choreographer is outstanding. Despite Chapter Four being crammed wall-to-wall with them, each setup seems different from every other, and never feels rote. Hits are elegant and purposeful, and each scene has at least one moment where you’ll marvel at something you won’t have seen before, even if you’re a seasoned action fan. Perhaps even more than in prior movies, John Wick: Chapter Four doesn’t really bother setting up strong motivations for these encounters, and really, does it have to? By the fourth installment of this thing we have to assume that no one is really counting the many dozens of dead bodies that John Wick and his friends leave in their wake. This is a world where violence is so routine that in a nightclub where multiple people are being kicked over balconies and running around with guns, everyone keeps dancing, oblivious to the carnage around them. Where fights break out as a matter of course, just part of any normal conversation, and we barely blink an eye at the ritual scarification involved to substantiate the arcane traditions of the Table and Wick’s challenge. The additional wrinkles, like making Donnie Yen’s Caine a blind, effortlessly cool martial arts expert, or putting action star and stunt expert Scott Adkins in a fat suit, make fans of either or both of their substantial bodies of work see them in new ways.
One thing that John Wick: Chapter Four does, narratively, is explore the idea of what a hitman becomes if he vanquishes his target and has no other contracts on the horizon. What’s left for the ever-vigilant revenge seeker if his revenge has been satisfied? Throughout the movie, people are constantly asking Wick, ‘what next?’ And by the end of the film’s extraneous runtime, it sure seems like there’s no obvious path forward for Keanu’s titular character. But, of course once you cross the ‘fourth film’ rubicon, all bets are off. Appropriately for a franchise where surprises are still very much possible despite the seemingly-formulaic nature of the first three films, everything – from grand, multi-person action sequences in a sleek Japanese hotel to a chase sequence where cars themselves are weapons, all set to a francophone cover of Paint it Black – is on the Table.
John Wick: Chapter Four comes to theatres this Friday March 24, 2023.