The nearly three-hour fairy tale of firearms that is “John Wick: Chapter 4” is a sprawling, Shakespearean orgy of violence, a salute to stunt choreographers, and a return to the original film’s roots — at the heart of the matter, it is the fundamentally the story of a duel, and a dog.
For four bloody installments, Keanu Reeves has played the sorrowful, taciturn assassin John Wick, directed by his former stunt double Chad Stahelski, who has proven to be quite the cinematic stylist. Together, these two have offered up a completely unique blockbuster action franchise, one that dares to be somber, centering the doleful Reeves as the grieving John Wick. It also dares to embrace bold aesthetics — color, style, production design and location shooting — which feels downright revolutionary in the age of endless greenscreen and computer-generated landscapes.
These films are long on style, but narrative complexity is not on the menu here — the “John Wick” films are merely conduits for long dream ballets of stunning fight choreography set amongst richly production-designed scenery. Reeves seems aware that he is merely a vessel for violence here, and though the script, by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch, is laden with lore surrounding the Continental Hotel for assassins (gamely delivered by Clancy Brown), feel free to simply let it wash over you.
All you need to know is that John Wick is fighting for his freedom, that the governing body of assassins, the High Table, doesn’t want to grant it, and he’s going to duel to the death for it. The new leader of the High Table, the preening, poncy Marquis (an excellent Bill Skarsgard) hasn’t just put out a huge bounty on Wick’s head, he’s also compelled the Zatoichi-like blind swordsman Caine (an even more excellent Donnie Yen) to kill John Wick in exchange for protecting his daughter.
And so it unfolds. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is structured roughly in three parts set in different locations across the globe. The first, taking place at The Continental in Osaka, is spectacular — stunningly designed in a neon Japanophile style that combines traditional and modern symbols: cherry blossoms and samurai swords, rich reds and nightclub lighting. The hotel, managed by Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter Akira (singer Rina Sawayama in her acting debut) becomes the location for a showdown between John and the High Table henchman. It’s the high point of the film, and it’s distressingly over in the first act.
This long fight sequence shows what the “John Wick” movies do best, melding choreography with space and cinematography. Kevin Kavanaugh’s eye-popping sets become an integral part of the action, putting glass art panels and neon-lit stairs to work. Dan Laustsen’s sumptuous cinematography captures it all in long fluid camera movements, allowing the work of stunt professionals to shine.
The film later moves on to Berlin, and then Paris, as John decides to challenge the Marquis to a duel. In Berlin, he has to earn back the trust of his family so that they’ll stake his challenge, and in Paris, he’ll face off with the Marquis if he can manage to get to the church on time (Sacre-Coeur, that is).
In between, there are moments both insipid and sublime. The attempts at comedy ultimately fail; one wishes the filmmakers would realize that the humor in “John Wick” works when they keep a straight face — Reeves knows this — and not try to force it. There’s an unfortunate sequence of Scott Adkins in a fat suit as a Berlin-based heavy who roundhouse kicks John Wick all over a brutalist nightclub. It’s great to see Adkins in the movie, but not like this.
But when it’s sublime, it’s positively transcendent, such as Yen’s incredible turn delivering one of the best physical performances of all time as the blind assassin. The supporting cast brings the color and the heat, and Shamier Anderson is also fantastic as a tracker trying to run up John Wick’s contract. Each character has a distinct fighting style, and while Yen is like a classically trained dancer, Anderson’s “Mr. Nobody” is all muscle and force, a military-trained survivalist using a pump-action shotgun and sporting a backpack. He’s the one with the dog, by the way, a dog whose loyalties will ultimately tip the shifting allegiances.
John Wick is a man of few words, but a lot of action, and when all is said and done, it’s simply a treat to watch him move about these space, from the galleries of Japanese art, to a pounding Berlin club, to the traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe, and even more spectacularly, the 222 steps to Sacre-Coeur. We like to watch him work — a skill he employs almost regretfully — and “John Wick: Chapter 4” is a stunningly beautiful, if a bit narratively sludgy, climax for America’s favorite assassin.
‘JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4’
3 stars (out of 4)
Rated: R (for pervasive strong violence and some language)
Running time: 2:49
How to watch: In theaters Friday