Words by Siddhant Adlakha
A pervasive sadness runs through John Wick: Chapter 4, one of the strangest yet most entertaining Hollywood action movies in years, and a potential capstone to the series. Keanu Reeves returns as the broken Belarusian Boogeyman, yanked out of retirement three movies ago by the death of his wife and the murder of the puppy she left him. The fourth installment continues that story, with John Wick trying desperately to leave his old life behind, and it further expands the ludicrous, globetrotting assassin lore that fills every corner of the screen. However, unlike the previous two movies, which played like expansion packs of the first film, Chapter 4 is a true blue sequel that forces reflection not only who the character is, but on his very purpose—both in an in-world narrative sense, and from a meta-textual standpoint. It seems to ask: what is the point of a man on a mission, when he has nothing left to live for? In that vein, it strings together numerous philosophical and theological allusions (from Buddhism, to the series’ continued penchant for remixing Graeco-Roman mythology), arguably the most meaningful entry in the saga, even if its innovative action is far more amusing than engrossing.
Director Chad Stahelski paints Reeves’ return with much pomp and circumstance, when a now in-hiding Wick is announced (to the audience) by the booming voice of Reeves’ Matrix co-star, Laurence Fishburne, who once again plays the Bowery King, i.e. the leader of New York’s network of homeless hitmen. Where the series last left off, New York’s Hotel Continental—the assassins’ abode—caught the attention of the mysterious High Table, the opulent organization overseeing this parallel, retro-futuristic world of contract killers with its own ancient customs. The Continental’s crafty manager Winston (Ian McShane) and his diligent concierge Charon (the late Lance Reddick) have been accused of harboring the rogue Wick, leading to a global manhunt courtesy of a suave new Parisian villain, “The Marquis” (Bill Skarsgård), whose position at the High Table affords him near unlimited power and resources, which he wields from a number of baroque hideouts.
After dealing devastating consequences to the New York Continental, The Marquis hires an old friend of Wick’s to track him down, a blind Chinese swordsman and gunman nicknamed Caine (Donnie Yen). Caine, along with the Marquis’ hulking henchmen, tracks Wick to the Continental’s sister establishment in Osaka, led by yet another pal of Wick’s, the distinguished Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada). In quickly introducing Yen and Sanada as old Wick comrades forced to fight on opposite sides of power, John Wick: Chapter 4 not only widens this world and its history, but imbues it with stakes more personal than either of the previous sequels. What’s more, it creates numerous reflections of Wick as a character, ostensibly establishing a multiverse of John Wicks—every Wick, everywhere, all at once?—since each new player seems to represent a potential or possibility for who Wick might have turned out to be in a different life. And yet, each character’s circumstances are constrained by the strict rules and blood debts of the High Table, which they’re all forced to contend with even as they battle each other on opposing sides.
The Marquis’ elderly right hand man for instance, the Harbinger (Clancy Brown), is the only other character in the series who, like Wick in Chapter 3, was forced to ritualistically amputate his ring finger. His missing digit is a reminder of the life of fealty that may lie ahead for Wick, should he remain under the Table’s thumb. Conversely, Caine and Koji are equals and opposites whose lives rest on a knife’s edge. Both men are fathers to young adult daughters, a life Wick was never allowed to live, and yet both men’s families are also constantly threatened by the Table. Caine must do The Marquis’ bidding if he wants his estranged daughter to live, while Koji keeps his daughter, the assassin concierge Akira (Rina Sawayama), close by at the hotel—and thus, paradoxically, in constant danger. There’s no good way to protect their children in their line of work; both distant safety and watchful intimacy come with a price.
Perhaps the most Wick-like addition to the series is the resourceful, street-smart bounty hunter Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson), a poor outsider like Wick, who worms his way into high society alongside his canine companion, and kills for money rather than allegiance. He represents the ruthless business interests that likely drew Wick to the job all those years ago, but even his straightforward, money-first ideology remains at the mercy of the Table’s violent rituals. Both Caine and Nobody start out trying to murder Wick, but the powers that be often cause them to question what’s right, in a world where every decision seems like a morally putrid no-win scenario. The assassins may be rich, but the Table wields the power of wealth.
The corrupting influence of the Table has long been a series throughline, but Chapter 4 approaches its story not through a material lens, but an ethereal one. Each character seems to exist on a precipice, where certain death is just one casual command away. Much of the movie unfolds at a perpetual magic hour, with golden sunsets that both provide visual beauty and harken oncoming darkness of the soul, wherein men will be forced to make decisions with far-reaching consequences. The plot might sound plain on paper—the assassins all travel from country A to B, in pursuit of Idiosyncratic Boss 3, as fight scene number 26 ensues—but the movie earns its gargantuan 170-minute runtime thanks to the quiet moments in between the gunfire, where drama is punctuated by Stahelski’s unapologetically gaudy aesthetics, which he deploys with surprising thoughtfulness. The Osaka Continental, for instance, is less of a luxury resort and more of lurid nightclub for the one percent, but its stark washes of red and blue neon go from alluring to downright dreamlike when—as masked SWAT teams and other guns for hire begin to infiltrate the facility—the harsh lighting falls on a cherry tree on the hotel’s rooftop, as Wick watches the blossoms shed their petals in contemplative silence. It’s the kind of reflective arthouse imagery rarely expected from a movie best categorized as “elevated Redbox action.”
Unfortunately, there are few such scenes that truly entangle the story’s most sobering and exciting moments, but even the movie’s stop-start approach proves effective as it oscillates between dramatic intensity and death-defying choreography. The action speaks to each character, too, between Caines’ resourcefulness as a visually impaired hitman (he’s surprisingly calm and collected, resulting in a number of hilarious action beats) and Wick’s umpteenth judo roll takedown followed by a gunshot to the head. It’s been his signature move since the first film, and while it runs the risk of growing stale, its repetition serves a dual purpose. On one hand, it challenges the stunt coordinators to find new and unique ways for him to pull off the exact same move. On the other hand, it speaks directly to the inescapable, Sisyphean scenario in which he finds himself, performing near-identical executions to seemingly no end, rolling piles of corpses up a hill.
This idea forms the thematic backbone of Chapter 4, a film in which Wick and several men just like him attempt to break free from cycles of death and reluctant re-emergence into the world of hit-men—like being reborn into the same life of perpetual pain. As in previous chapters, Stahelski makes overt references to other classic films, between sly allusions to the Matrix movies, and even an enormous action climax that seems cheekily inspired by the lyrics of “Get Me to the Church on Time” from My Fair Lady. However, the film’s most overt callback, to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, is perhaps its most indicative of the theme of cyclical suffering. The most famous edit in Lawrence—perhaps in all of Western cinema—is the smash-cut from a match being blown out in a constricted office, to the sun peeking over the vast Arabian desert. Chapter 4, re-creates this cut almost exactly, as its first action sequence begins in a nebulous Middle East, but this entire scene feels like a retread of scenes and images from the previous film. While it may seem, at first, like a lack of originality, the tension between blowing out a flame and arriving back at the drawing board is a vital piece of imagery in this story. Wick, now trapped in his fourth cinematic cycle of death and rebirth, is essentially on a mission to attain moksha—the Buddhist concept of release from saṃsāra, or the cyclical nature of birth, suffering, death and rebirth that defines the physical world—whose literal meaning is “the great quenching,” in reference to a flame finally being blown out.
In Buddhism, moksha can be attained through nirvāṇa, or enlightenment at the moment of death—the time at which the entirety of John Wick: Chapter 4 appears to be taking place, given its perpetual twilight. For Wick, this enlightenment is a difficult task, given the blinders with which he has embarked on his various revenge sprees, only to now have his fate entangled with those of men who have much more to live for. Mr. Nobody has his dog. Koji and Caines have their daughters, and their principles. But Wick is a ghost chasing ghosts, immersed in the question of what his life amounts to and what his purpose may even be, in what Stahelski hints may be the final film in the series.
However, despite these heavy themes, Chapter 4 never forgets to be the one thing every John Wick movie should be: an absolute blast. While it lacks the lavish and memorable set-pieces of Chapter 3 (the knife museum, the horseback chase, and the bike skirmish ripped from Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess), it also avoids falling into the rote patterns the third movie frequently did, with its gratuitous scenes of headshot after headshot. There’s gunfire a-plenty, but despite the mournful story at hand, the action is rarely self-serious, veering between delightfully zippy hand-to-hand battles, shootouts where characters in bullet-proof suits raise their jackets like Dracula’s cape, and an extended chase that may as well be an adaptation of the traffic-dodging arcade game Frogger. None of these are particularly emotionally engrossing, but they have enough momentum and impact to rival the first movie’s intimate stabs and shootouts, as if those moments had been magnified tenfold. One sequence in particular says “screw it” to the very idea of immersion, and instead presents an entire shootout as if it were an out-of-body experience in a Gaspar Noé film, floating above the characters like a spirit observing the physical world (only in this case, the physical world operates on Looney Tunes logic).
John Wick: Chapter 4 not only goes bigger with its bloodshed, but gets more introspective too, about the inherent nihilism of a series stepped in such relentless death. It wants to have its cake and it eat it too—dispensing with goons in ridiculous fashion is its bread and butter, while its main characters’ lives are afforded the kind of depth that would give their deaths meaning—but it succeeds despite this paradox, not by overcoming or subverting it, but by leaning into it. Four movies in, audiences know what they want from a John Wick movie. They want Reeves’ determined grunts and purposeful limps. They want a detailed underworld filled with mythical gravitas, and a story steeped in melancholy. They also want bodies that break like raw spaghetti when they fall from great heights, and they want fluid action that bucks the modern Hollywood trend of quick-cut incomprehensibility. They want it all—and with John Wick Chapter 4, they get it all, even if it means rarely getting any of these two things at once.
Published on March 23, 2023
Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter