“John Wick: Chapter 4″ is the ultraviolent “An American in Paris” we needed, I suppose. And not only in Paris. Keanu Reeves, returning as the inhumanly cool assassin, grieving widower and indestructible killing machine John Wick, zigzags from New York to Osaka to Berlin, winding up in the City of Light for an old-school fateful duel at sunrise.
This is preceded by a lengthy killing spree in heavy traffic circling the Arc de Triomphe, which here looks more like an Arc de Triage, as well as a protracted, demented, movie-capping slaughter up and down the 222 steps of Rue Foyatier. Early reviews of “John Wick 4″ already have enshrined that sequence as an action classic.
Is it, though?
Me, well … for me, this Bigger, Longer, Bloodier sequel — two hours, 49 minutes of movie packed into one hour, 49 minutes of plot — gets by with some gratifying excess and nice suits to go with the sociopathically scaled body count. There’s also a considerable amount of excess that’s less gratifying.
I miss the simpler kinetic pleasures of “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” my favorite in the series. That film’s library prologue (Wick vs. assailant, singular), followed by the blade-throwing square-off at the antique weaponry boutique (Wick vs. a select handful of adversaries) killed in every way possible. The elaborate stunt work and fight choreography felt more or less of this Earth; those scenes made their mark as true, small-scale peaks of contemporary action moviemaking. Too much of “John Wick 4″ mistakes grandiloquence for excitement. But yes, as bloody diversion goes, the audience gets its money’s worth.
The script, this time by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch, rolls out a carpet of pseudo-philosophical ruminations and death-shrouded regrets, interrupted by fresh rounds of assassins out to assassinate our assassin hero. In order to free himself from his High Table underworld overlords, Wick must dispatch the sniveling new head of the criminal cadre, the Marquis (Bill Skarsgard, going full Bond villain). This he must do while surviving the onslaught of freelance assassins eager for millions in bounty money.
You can talk about the movie’s devotion to honor among gentlemen, exemplified by Reeves’ scenes with his friend and protector Winston (though he did try to kill him in the previous film; whatever, he’s moody). Ian McShane returns here. But I don’t buy any of that honor-among-well-dressed-killers guff, any more than I buy it in the lesser “Kingsman” franchise. In “John Wick 4″ there are moments when Reeves’ face shifts from crestfallen widower to slightly disengaged and irritable performer, and it’s the same look you can find on Colin Firth’s face in some of the “Kingsman” scenes.
In the movie’s early highlight, the Japan chapter, “John Wick: Chapter 4″ boasts sharp, brutal, salaciously violent mayhem with real personality on the screen. After an assassination prologue set in the Moroccan desert (played by the Jordanian desert), Wick heads to Osaka, the site of a High Table outpost. The manager is played by Hiroyuki Sanada; his front-desk manager daughter is played by Rina Sawayama. As a pal of Wick’s, this character’s pressed into service when enemies come to call. Sawayama’s blade work is fantastic and full credit, where it’s due, should go to her stunt double.
After Osaka, the movie goes sideways and then down and then up again. It perks up each time the blind assassin Caine (Donnie Yen) reappears; he’s deft as well as witty in the way he goes about his business, and he’s basically the polar opposite of McShane, who smirks his way through material that never gives him the zingers he deserves. As for Reeves, as Wick he goes all the way into a realm of near-Kabuki stylization, further from human, closer to myth or god, treating each one-word rejoinder or sentence fragment as an utterance from a lost soul. Reeves remains an actor and a star of unique presence and catlike grace. But “John Wick 4″ requires little of the actor half, with the character a mere survivor and weapons fetishist, existing only to fall from great heights, or tumble down concrete steps for what seems like hours at a time. No major film character ever survived more vehicular homicide attempts, and that includes the entirety of the “Fast & Furious” franchise.
Director Chad Stahelski has made four features to date, all of them “John Wicks.” Occasionally his visual instincts for activating and sustaining combat within the frame are fully apparent in “John Wick 4.” But less so than in “John Wick 3″ or the other one I really like, the first one. It’s not fair, really, to argue for a successful franchise to stick within the ambitions or the budgetary limits of the first film. It is, however, fair, I think, to want better, tighter scripts and more interesting stuff in between watching the remarkable stunt and combat experts do their thing.
Postscript: The late Lance Reddick, who played Charon in the “Wick” series including in “John Wick 4,” appears in some early scenes. I wish those scenes were better, fuller. But he’s as good as ever, and his skill and tightly coiled reserve serve as bittersweet reminders of what fine actors do for a living while we have them.
‘JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4’
2.5 stars (out of 4)
Rated: R (for pervasive strong violence and some language)
Running time: 2:49
How to watch: In theaters Friday