Friendship is a Killer

John Wick: Chapter 4

It should never be doubted that Keanu Reeves is one of the greatest action stars of this generation. He's had a number of successful films and franchises under his belt -- Point Break, Speed, The MatrixA speculative future story with superhero and anime influences, The Matrix not only pushed viewers to think about the nature of their own reality but also expanded what filmmakers could do with action sequences and filming. It then launched a series of movies, games, and comics, creating a franchise still talked about today. -- and outside of the Bill and Ted series, every major hit for the actor has been action. He has that surfer cool, a stoic vibe that works so well in the context of action films. Plus, the man looks good holding a gun, makes it look professional. Couple that with a willingness to do his own stunts (despite being 58) lends his action movies solid credibility.

While The Matrix is currently Reeves's most successful franchise (per Box Office receipts), one could make a case that the John WickStarted as a tale of redemption and then revenge (in that order), the John Wick series has grown to be a adynamic, reliable action series that doesn't skimp on the hard hits and gun-toting thrills, elevating Keanu Reeves as one of the greatest action stars ever. series will grow to be his true, lasting cinematic legacy. Each film has managed to outperform the last, turning tidy profits for the studios one after another. And having already cleared $1.027 Bil so far, with no signs of stopping, it will be Reeves's biggest franchise soon enough. Hell, John Wick 4 managed to clear over $400 Mil and still get positive reviews and audience ratings, an unheard of feat for a franchise this deep into its own sequels. You'd have to look at the series within the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. for anything comparable, and even many of those are starting to show signs of waning.

With that said, this fourth film does feel like a capper to the franchise in many ways. It ends a trilogy story set up by John Wick: Chapter 2 and has, let's say, a definitive ending that makes you wonder how they'd even manage to make the proposed John Wick: Chapter 5 they've been bandying about. For the character, this feels like a natural conclusion, and a necessary one because, if I'm being frank, I'm a bit tired of John Wick at this point.

The movies are stylish, and there's plenty of action, but for this fourth film, it all started to sound like so much noise. There's a lot of fighting, and a lot of shooting, and the action scenes just go on and on. If you're here just for action, done at high volume and constant pace, then this fourth film does deliver. But for those looking for emotional stakes, or any sense that these films were really going anywhere, Chapter 4 fails to deliver. Frankly, were it not for the ending (which I won't spoil) it would seem like these movies could just keep doing the same things over and over again, in new locales and with different interchangeable characters, and the endless parade of violence would never end. The emotional investment for the character is missing, though, and that ruins what was started all the way back in John Wick.

This fourth film picks up sometime after John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum with John Wick (Reeves) having spent that indeterminate amount of months training and rebuilding himself after all the damage he took in the prior film. Under the watchful eye of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), Wick has made himself ready to go out and once more hunt the higher ups of the shadowy organization he once belonged to (and, due to their arcane rules, now belongs again). All Wick wants is to be free, to not be a puppet forced to kill over and over again. He lost his wife, and they took his wedding ring, and now he wants out.

Unfortunately for Wick he's still being hunted by that very organization (who both want him as their tool and want to kill him). One of the members of the so-called High Table, the Marquis Vincent Bisset de Gramont (Bill Skarsgard), has put a $20 Mil bounty on Wick's head, and will stop at nothing to see him dead. It's only thanks to the help of another assassin, Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson), as well as an old friend, the blind assassin Caine (Donnie Yen), that Wick survives for as long as he does this time around. From Japan to Berlin and then to Paris, Wick is chased, with the bounty going up, and even his friends will eventually turn against him. But if Wick is able to kill the Marquis, fairly and in a duel, then he might just finally be free, once and for all.

There are two aspects of the film we have to address, and we'll start with what most people show up for: the action. There is no doubt that director Chad Stahelski (who has helmed all four John Wick films so far) knows his way around action. He can film long, stylish takes inter cut with frenetic editing, all to create some of the most stylish and cohesive action you'll find on screen. It's dynamic, it's propulsive, and it feels real. There are chunky hits, and big blasts, but none of it has any kind of fakeness to it... outside of a few odd choices that actually pulled me out of the movie.

The first issue I had was that, as per the in-universe setup, the suits many of the assassins wear are bullet proof. This was fine in the first film where the tailors acknowledged that the suits were stylish, and would prevent fatal damage, but gun shots still hurt. Here, however, it doesn't seem like that same rule applies; the gun shots are still stopped, but any fear of bruising or pain is ignored. Hell, for much of the film Wick runs around holding one side of his suit coat up to deflect shots to his face, all the while ignoring any of the impacts of those bullets to his clothes. There's an artifice here that didn't work for me and it all looked rather silly.

This also leads to the second problem: Wick gets into a lot of situations where he should be killed, and yet he manages to get up and walk it off. The most egregious was a three story fall he takes later in the movie, landing half on a parked van, half sliding off onto hard pavement. That should kill him (as should many of the hits he takes from moving cars) and yet it doesn't. He's able to get up and stumble away when the rest of us would have broken bones and massive internal bleeding. You can't tell me the magical bullet-proof suits can let him shrug off that kind of damage as well.

The other major issue I had with this film is that there's no emotional through line for it. If you go back to the early films, Wick was motivated by revenge, by hate, by grief. His wife died, but left him a puppy in the first film, and when that puppy was then killed Wick goes on a murder spree to kill everyone involved in the incident. It was satisfying. The second film sucked Wick back into the world, forced him to deal with an old acquaintance cashing in a marker, and ten the series of events that leads to him getting revenge on that acquaintance. It, again, sets up emotional stakes and motivation for the character. But, ever since, Wick has simply been on the run, moving from place to place to kill people all for the vague "I need to get free" motivation, which doesn't have the same hook.

A big issue is that Wick isn't really a character anymore, he's just a shadowy stunt performer given top billing. He's gruff and one note (which is the fault of the script, not of Reeves), forced to just keep going through the motions because the writers basically put themselves in a corner and can't really write their way out except though, "Wick shoots more people, and then more after that, and then more after that." It's fun to watch him kill a bunch of people, but when there's no connection to any of them (as there isn't here) it all feel very hollow.

The movie is very stylish and it is quite pretty to look at. There are scenes that look like their own paintings, bathed in shadows, bright lights, and neons. You have no doubt that the scouting team for this movie was given free rein to find whatever beautiful locales they could, and they absolutely nailed it. This is probably the most handsome movie in the series yet, and it has plenty of mindless action to go along with it. For most, that would be enough, and even I found moments where the hard hits could suck me in. But end of the day it wasn't exactly satisfying. It was empty action calories without any meat to go along with, and I'm really starting to miss the protein of the story that went along with.

There are more Wick-related projects coming, from Ballerina to The Continental, and maybe even more John Wick films. Wherever this franchise goes, though, I hope they're able to work more substance in with their action (and maybe take away some of the training wheels they've built in to the gun fights in the process). This series can be fun and satisfying, it just has to find a way to get back to that.