One of the great things about 2014's John Wick was how refreshing it felt, instantly standing out in a glut of generic, uninspired action movies. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad presented an efficient, streamlined revenge story with hints of a larger underground world. Director Chad Stahelski (along with uncredited co-director David Leitch) drew on his decades of experience as a stunt performer and coordinator to deliver expertly choreographed fight scenes that didn't rely on special-effects cheats and weren't edited into incoherence. Star Keanu Reeves found the perfect role for his laconic, contemplative screen presence. The stylish, inventive movie even made room for an affecting meditation on grief and vengeance.
The result was an unexpected hit that's since launched an increasingly bloated franchise, culminating in the repetitive, tiresome John Wick: Chapter 4. With a running time of nearly three hours (more than an hour longer than the well-paced original), Chapter 4 is a self-indulgent mess, lost in the byzantine assassin underworld that has become the focus of the sequels, full of arcane rules and factions. While Leitch moved on after the first movie, Stahelski has spent his entire directing career at the helm of the John Wick franchise, and his previously bold style has become calcified, losing much of its ability to surprise and delight.
It's not Stahelski's fault that success has brought him numerous inferior imitators, but it does mean that there is a higher bar to clear for Chapter 4's action sequences to command the same attention as in the previous movies. Stahelski takes a more-is-more approach, packing Chapter 4 with set pieces that stretch out interminably, featuring little variation. Even the movie's most impressive action sequence, a battle amid the traffic circling Paris' Arc de Triomphe, loses momentum as it seemingly refuses to end.
While Reeves' formerly retired hitman was once out for revenge against one specific criminal who killed his dog and stole his car, he's now pitted against the entire elaborate international assassin community, whose ruling body known as the High Table has marked him for death. With its dedicated luxury hotels, secret armories, strict training academies and rigid hierarchy, this criminal network has a more robust infrastructure than most midsize nations, and Chapter 4 introduces even more esoteric regulations and official representatives.
John's main antagonist this time is the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), a High Table member tasked with Wick's elimination. With help from his previous allies Winston Scott (Ian McShane), manager of New York City's assassin-exclusive Continental Hotel, and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), overlord of a deadly cabal of the unhoused, John attempts to invoke an ancient High Table tradition so he can defeat the Marquis and clear his obligations.
While John's grief over his dead wife has long since lost its emotional power, Stahelski and screenwriters Shay Hatten and Michael Finch shift some of that weariness and melancholy to Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind assassin who's forced into an agreement with the Marquis in order to protect his daughter. Caine is a worthy opponent and friend for John, and Yen adds a welcome element of genuine humanity, along with his requisite action badassery.
Anything heartfelt is quickly drowned out by the sheer volume of the monotonous, meaningless action, though, including a retroactively touching final appearance from the late Lance Reddick as the Continental's taciturn concierge. The sustained popularity of these movies indicates that fans are eager for higher body counts and more ridiculous world-building, but it's still disappointing to watch a once scrappy, ruthless revenge thriller become the hitman equivalent of the cartoonish Fast and Furious franchise. ♦JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4