Masterpiece. It’s never a word I use lightly, especially when regarding action movies. While there are certainly contenders, only a handful instantly comes to mind. John Woo’s The Killer (1989), Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road (2015) are all arguably worthy of the title masterpiece. Now I can add John Wick: Chapter 4 to this list. Some may disagree or think I’m being hyperbolic but I would ask them to find me a recent American actioner with such beautifully crafted action scenes as this.
It’s not just the action that sizzles, as director Chad Stahelski has managed to once again improve on what has come before, with this John Wick tale being much wider in scope than anything that has come before, with the “baba yaga” globe trotting the world to get revenge against the all powerful High Table. His battles take him from New York to Morocco then onto Japan and this is all in the first 20 minutes.
From there Reeves’ John Wick finds out that the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgard) has been given unlimited powers by the High Table to exterminate him. Wick is given a possible way out of his impending predicament by old friend Winston (Ian McShane), who advises John to invoke an old High Table tradition, inviting the Marquis to one on one duel. This is something that the Marquis will not be able to turn down and if John wins he would be free of the High Table for life.
As expected, it isn’t as easy as that, as John has to undertake a series of tasks and fight off a few hundred killers before he is even able to take part in a duel. Further complications come in the form of old friend Caine (Donnie Yen) who has been coerced by the High Table to hunt down John and kill him. There is also Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson) who is only willing to kill Wick once the bounty on him is high enough, until then he even goes out his way to help.
This larger canvas John Wick: Chapter 4 takes place on hasn’t only allowed Stahelski to create the ultimate John Wick film but also introduce a range of new important characters to the franchise. Some that could certainly take the franchise into new directions.
Unlike previous Wick movies where the primary focus was on Reeves, this range of new heroes and villains get their own fair share of screen time, although importantly never take too much focus away from Reeves as the titular assassin. Clocking in at just under 3 hours, this extended runtime has afforded Stahelski time for us to get to know each of these characters, with them all getting their time to shine, admittedly some more than others.
Some may think such a runtime would drag, but at no point was this an issue, with nary a second wasted. The pace is kept up superbly, and while the action is more evenly staged than the more frenetic pace of Chapter 3, there is no fear of boredom setting in.
What helps matters is Stahelski and his action team constantly upping their game, with one long take sequence absolutely blowing me away. It involves a one take shot of Reeves facing off against an assortment of would be assassins in an abandoned Parisian building. What sets this sequence apart from other “oners” is how Stahelski positions the camera above the ceiling, looking down on the characters like a video game. It’s a bravura set piece and proves that Stahelski is one of the best action directors currently working.
This is how an action film should be done, giving the audience something unexpected as well as making the generic seem fresh by thinking outside the box. Of course, this isn’t the only action scene that will have your draw hitting the floor. In fact, I would have to say that every action scene in the film is nigh on perfect, with each of them offering something unique to stave off any chance of the action becoming stale. It helps that Stahelski likes to shoot in long clear takes that allows you to revel in the action rather than wonder what the hell just happened from watching a series of jump cuts.
Standouts are the all out brawl throughout the Osaka Continental which finds many of our principals squaring off. This is technically the film’s first major action scene, with only a brief horse chase during the opening moments of the film. It’s an almost exhausting battle that sees Reeves not only having to use guns but finds him taking down multiple opponents with a pair of nunchaku.
This is the type of scene that would have been removed from any UK screening in the past. This was down to snotty nosed James Ferman who was head of the BBFC at the time. His reasoning being that nunchucks could be used by young people to enact violence. Ferman, a supposed intellectual never thought that young people could also use a gun however, which he never seemed to have a problem with in films.
However I digress, this isn’t an attack on Ferman, more to point out how lucky we are to get such an action scene appearing uncut in this day and age. And make no mistake, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of cuts with the action, as Chapter 4 is just as gleefully violent as audiences have come to expect. It isn’t just Reeves that is given a chance to shine during this scene, with both Donnie Yen and Hiroyuki Sanada getting a fair opportunity to show off their moves, with the two even facing off at one point in a fast and furious sword duel.
It isn’t all shootouts and martial arts, with the last third of the film containing one of the craziest car chases I’ve seen in years, rivaling the likes the Bourne series became famous for. It has Reeves commandeering a 1971 Plymouth Cuda where he proceeds to race round the Arc de Triomphe while trying to evade the countless assassins who wish to claim the bounty on his head. It’s a hair raising chase that leads onto the awesome finale which I don’t want to spoil here.
One main thing that stands out above all else is how beautiful the visuals are. The early Japan scenes allow director of photography Daniel Lausten to go wild with colors, taking full advantage of the neon lights of the Osaka Continental. His work here surpasses his already impressive work on both Chapter 2 and 3 in the series. This is definitely one of the most stunning American actioners I have seen since Michael Mann had Pacino chase DeNiro all those years back in Heat.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t matter how visually impressive the film looked or how great the action was if you didn’t have a dedicated cast of performers giving their roles their all. This is clearly the finest cast the series has assembled to date, with several notable action legends in supporting roles to further seal the deal.
As expected, Keanu Reeves throws himself into the role 110%, with him being involved in nearly every action scene in the film. He takes and dishes out some amount of punishment before reaching the finale, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint. Reportedly Reeves only says 380 words during the entire runtime, further cementing the character as more a man of action than words. I can’t say it was an issue, or even noticeable.
Reeves by his own admission isn’t a martial artist, rather an actor who has been taught how to fight on screen. Still, he carries off his fight scenes with considerable skill. Some moves do come off as slightly stilted but I felt that this was fitting with the character and the beating he has taken up to this point. After all, at the end of the last film we saw him plummet from the roof of the New York Continental, something that would kill a mere mortal. But this is John Wick we’re talking about, or in actuality Keanu Reeves, who even at the age of 59 shows no signs of slowing down. Or ageing.
His co-star Donnie Yen is exactly the same, who at the same age as Reeves is still churning out action movie after action movie. Yen almost steals the show as Caine, which like his role in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is another variation on the famed Zatoichi character. Although Caine may be blind, Yen still kicks a lot of ass, getting several of his own fight scenes.
This is clearly Yen’s finest U.S. role to date, with him bringing a lot of personality to the character. Although Caine is looking to kill John, he isn’t exactly a villain, with him and John even being friends. He is being manipulated by the Marquis over the love of his daughter which makes him more relatable than most of the others looking to put John 6 feet under. I could certainly see a spin off film in Yen’s future, something he has already commented that he would be up for.
Adding further class to proceedings is the appearance of another martial arts legend in the form of Hiroyuki Sanada. Sanada had already worked for John Wick production company 87 North on last year’s Bullet Train (2022), and he brings the same level of gravitas to his role here. Playing another friend of John’s, Shimazu Koji the manager of the Osaka Continental. He is a man that puts friendship and loyalty over the rules of the High Table and is willing to fight to the death to keep these principles.
Sanada gets less screen time than Reeves or Yen but still impresses, both with his acting but especially in the action department, an area he has always excelled in. He proves to be still deadly with a blade even in his 60th decade, with his fight sequence against the army of assassins invading his hotel allowing him to show off his skill before going up against Yen in the previously mentioned sword battle, where the two go at it with ridiculous speed betraying both their ages.
Amongst the identifiable martial arts stars on display, there is another who fans may not instantly recognize. As reported, Scott Adkins does appear in John Wick: Chapter 4, but as most have no doubt found out by now, not in the way we expected. Appearing under a ton of latex and wearing an overblown fat suit, this is Adkins like you have never seen before. His screen time is somewhat limited but he is clearly one of the highlights of the film.
Adkins’ character of Killa is equally hilarious and deadly. Adkins is clearly relishing the chance of playing such an over the top villain, what with his ridiculous German accent, his asthma inhaler and the perpetual sweat constantly pissing out of him. Even with his added girth, Adkins still manages to be quite the fighter, with his fight against Reeves being especially memorable. The way Adkins moves here is heavily (no pun intended) reminiscent of Sammo Hung in SPL (2005) or even his co-star Donnie Yen, who wore a fatsuit himself a few years back for the underrated Enter the Fat Dragon (2020).
The only real drawback from Adkins performance is that he isn’t able to show off the full level of his skills, and the fact that he is unrecognizable. This is by far the largest film Adkins has ever appeared in and it’s ironic that some people could overlook the fact that it’s even him. Even so, he is wonderful here and it’s great to see him letting loose with a character far removed from anything he has played in the past.
Another of Adkins’ previous co-stars, Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror, also gets quite a substantial role as Chidi, the Marquis’ main enforcer. Like Reeves, he doesn’t exactly have much in the way of dialogue but makes up for it in terms of action. Fans of Zaror will already know what he is capable of, but this is a good showcase for the actor and should open him up to a much wider audience than he has had in the past. Hopefully it will make them go through his back catalogue where they can see him in his acrobatic glory.
Outside of the bonafide martial artists, newcomers to the series Shamier Anderson and Rina Sawayama do extremely well in their action scenes. Like Reeves, they are able to blend in well amongst the real life martial artists, with their action scenes being extremely impressive. Both characters get their own chance to shine, though admittedly Anderson does get increasingly more screen time than Sawayama. Like Yen’s Caine, I could see each of them featuring further down the line in either a sequel or spin off.
It’s not just those performing that brings quality to the film. As expected Ian McShane is terrific as series stalwart Winston, with his relationship with John having more interesting dimensions after what occurred in Chapter 3. Laurence Fishburne is his usual winning self as the Bowery King. Then there’s the late, great Lance Reddick who only appears fleetingly but brings poignancy to his role.
On the villain front, Bill Skarsgard makes for a fairly sniveling villain. Towering above most of the cast, the marquis looks an imposing figure with him being vain, cowardly and narcissistic. Skarsgard gives him a slightly comedic French accent but keeps it on the right side of ridiculous. Accompanying him in a good deal of his scene is the Kurgan himself, Clancy Brown, who may not get much to do but still commands attention whenever on screen. Even after all these years he hasn’t lost any of his screen presence.
I could keep going about all the other great qualities John Wick: Chapter 4 has to behold, but I think by now you get the idea that I loved it. I doubt many action fans haven’t seen it by this point, but if this is the case I would ask what the hell are you waiting for.
There are further tales to come from the John Wick universe, with the upcoming Ballerina movie which Reeves is to appear in as well as prequel series The Continental (2023) which covers Winston’s early days. At this point it’s unclear if Mr. Wick will have any further adventures. There has already been talks that Lionsgate wants further entries headlining Reeves but nothing has yet been confirmed. Personally I would always be down to see Reeves in another Wick film but at the same time, if this is how they choose to end things, it’s a perfect film to bow out on.
Plot: 5/5 Acting: 5/5 Action: 5/5 Overall: 5/5