Keanu Reeves returns as the enigmagic assassin in this flabby fourth instalment of the action franchise

John Wick: Chapter 4

Source: Lionsgate

‘John Wick: Chapter 4’

Dir: Chad Stahelski. US. 2023. 169mins

Running close to three hours, John Wick: Chapter 4 aspires to be a sweeping action epic – an ambitious approach that underlines this franchise’s strengths but also emphasises its considerable limitations. Keanu Reeves remains a redoubtable force as the titular assassin and the fight sequences continue to be extraordinary, combining balletic movement with wondrously gratuitous violence. But there is ultimately too much time between those bravura moments spent on a mournful narrative about regret, loss and fate — indeed, the film is far more profound when John Wick is expertly killing everyone in his path.

Plays dress-up rather than feeling like a legitimately rich, involving epic

Chapter 4 hits UK and US theatres on March 24, serving as a follow-up to 2019’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the highest-grossing in the series at $373 million worldwide. The franchise’s ensemble of actors are joined this time around by Donnie Yen and Bill Skarsgard, but it’s Reeves’ star power — and the promise of more brilliant set pieces — that will attract the faithful.

Excommunicated from The High Table, the underground crime world’s governing body, John Wick (Reeves) is being hunted down by The Marquis De Gramont (Skarsgard), who has been given permission by the rest of the council to eliminate Wick. To kill this skilled hitman, The Marquis recruits Caine (Yen), an elite blind assassin who was once one of Wick’s closest confidants.

Stuntman-turned-filmmaker Chad Stahelski returns after the first three films to direct again,  concocting a few exquisitely sustained action scenes that are nearly worth the price of admission. Nine years after the original John Wick, this new sequel cannot offer the same blunt surprises — Wick still has a penchant for killing his adversaries by shooting them at point-blank range in the head — but Stahelski ingeniously incorporates all manner of weapons in his fight sequences, favouring practical stunts as much as possible. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh, who have been part of the franchise since Chapter 2, create visually arresting backdrops for these bloody battles, utilising vivid colours and striking interiors that are as inventive as the shootouts and sword fights that take place within those spaces.

The first John Wick boasted a vaguely poignant story involving Wick’s grief for the deaths of his wife and dog — which became his motivation to seek vengeance against some local lowlifes — and the sequels have done their best to justify our hero’s return to the world of assassins after swearing he had retired. Predictably, that has required increasing world-building, which has proved to be only moderately successful — in many ways, the less we know about this milieu’s inner workings the better, as it mostly exposes the franchise’s underlying silliness. Chapter 4 is especially muddled when it tries to flesh out its supporting characters. Returning figures such as the shrewd Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of a New York hotel that is a safe haven for assassins, are familiar faces that may have overstayed their welcome.

The first instalment not to be at least co-written by franchise creator Derek Kolstad, Chapter 4 introduces a potential emotional element, pitting Wick against old friend Caine, neither man wanting to fight the other. (Caine has only agreed to assassinate Wick because The Marquis threatened to harm Caine’s daughter.) Early on in this sequel, these two weary hitmen duke it out, their action sequence infused with sadness, and there is a hope that Chapter 4 will be an anguished showdown between them. But after that terrific opening fight, their relationship is not compellingly developed. This is a shame considering that Yen shines as the composed, pitiless killer — even if the fact that Caine is blind feels like a gimmick, especially as Yen was also a sightless warrior in another recent blockbuster, Rogue One.

With each new chapter the franchise’s canvas has expanded, evolving from a modest B-movie into what is now a globe-trotting crime thriller in which one of the key set pieces takes place around Paris’ best-known landmarks. Working from Shay Hatten and Michael Finch’s screenplay, Stahelski lends the film a moody grandeur meant to suggest this sequel’s sombre stakes. But whether it’s Skarsgard’s cartoonish villain or the director’s showy nods to Lawrence Of Arabia and Sergio Leone, Chapter 4 plays dress-up rather than feeling like a legitimately rich, involving epic. 

Many may forgive the meandering plot and convoluted logistics involving The High Table simply because Chapter 4 features the inspired action scenes fans have come to expect. They are undeniably remarkable — primal, gorgeously choreographed, and sometimes so witty and outlandish they elicit laughs — but Chapter 4 is the first time in the franchise they feel overshadowed by the sheer narrative bulk. Even John Wick is not formidable enough to defeat that. 

Production companies: Thunder Road Films, 87eleven 

International sales: Lionsgate International, 

Producers: Chad Stahelski, Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee 

Screenplay: Shay Hatten and Michael Finch, based on characters created by Derek Kolstad

Cinematography: Dan Laustsen

Production design: Kevin Kavanaugh 

Editing: Nathan Orloff

Music: Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard 

Main cast: Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgard, Laurence Fishburne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shamier Anderson, Lance Reddick, Rina Sawayama, Scott Adkins, Clancy Brown, Ian McShane