John Wick is back, folks. If you remember (and why would you, it’s been 4 years since the last one of these), at the end of John Wick 3, our antihero took a bullet and a tumble off of the New York Continental Hotel so that his friend Winston (Ian McShane) could maintain his management of the aforementioned locale. The Continental is part of the underground masquerade of the world of high class assassins, and Wick is being targeted for failing to uphold one of their many intricate rituals and rites, with Winston having sacrificed his position within that hierarchy to help his friend, a favor that Wick repaid by letting Winston shoot him in front of an Adjudicator so that Winston appears to maintain his allegiance to the so-called “Table,” which oversees this underworld. This appears to have been for naught, unfortunately; now, some half a year or so after being taken into the care of the Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne), Wick has recovered and, before the ten minute mark, finds and kills the Elder, the only person who “sits above The Table,” resulting in Winston being confronted by a Harbinger (Clancy Brown) who tells him that the NY Continental has been deconsecrated and will be demolished, which is done within the hour. Our protagonists now have a new adversary, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), a French aristocrat with a house-sized closet full of nice suits who has been empowered by the other members of The Table to bring John Wick down, based on his vow to do so by any means necessary. Wick, now (once again? still?) on the run from The Table and their machinations, must slay his way through armies, mercenaries, and mooks in pursuit of freedom from his debts to leaders of this underworld. This time, his flight is complicated by two players who are new to us: an upstart known only as The Tracker (Shamier Anderson) whose calculated pursuit of Wick is based on trailing him without apprehending him while waiting for the bounty on Wick’s head to get bigger and bigger; and Caine (martial arts legend Donnie Yen), a sightless assassin who is also John’s old friend.
The third installment in this franchise was a little … muddled. I lumped John Wicks 1-3 all together into the #40 slot on my list of the best 100 films of the 2010s. I stand by that ranking, although after a few years, they have started to blend together a little. On the way to the theater to see 4, I mentioned to my companion that I was disappointed that Adrianne Palicki had been killed off and would not be reappearing, and was fairly insistent that this happened in the second film, when it actually happened at the end of the first. I also noted that there was a lot of time in Italy in the third film, but that was also a mistake; the Rome stuff is all in John Wick 2. I was still riding high on my experience of watching the third one when I wrote the blurb in the above-linked piece, because looking back now, the third one is difficult to recall, with its rapidly shifting locales and less cohesive storytelling that seemed intent on forcing as many celebrity cameos as possible, with the two things I remembered most being Anjelica Huston as the leader of an academy of ballerina-assassins and Halle Berry’s training of attack dogs that liked to go for the groin . Fortunately, although this film introduces more elements of the secret underworld that exists below and throughout the world that we civilians inhabit (Harbingers, one-on-one duels that are part of “the old ways” unto which even The Table are beholden, and even a Paris-based radio station that keeps listeners updated on bounties in between covers of apropos music), they’re much easier to follow than they were in the last installment. Wick can clear his debts with The Table if he kills the Marquis in a duel, the duelists are allowed to choose champions, etc.
Of course, that’s not what most of this film’s audience is here for. I saw this on a Tuesday night, which isn’t exactly a prime movie night for most people, and there were perhaps twenty people in the screening other than my party, mostly college-aged men who came with their buds and several couples (although I guess I’m playing into heteronormative biases by assuming that none of the pairs of men who came to see the movie together weren’t couples, but I digress). My companion and I laughed much more than the others, and I firmly believe that the laughs we experienced were intentional jokes that simply flew over the heads of the others who were present; they did laugh, but only at some of the more crass jokes, with the most notable being that Tracker’s dog lifts his leg and pees on the corpse of a dog-hating assassin who recurred throughout the film, while many of Wick’s dry subtle jabs elicited not a peep. They’re here for the killing! And boy howdy, was there a lot of it. While I find the criminal underworld in these movies fascinating, there’s no denying that they exist primarily as a vehicle for extended (very, very cool) sequences of hyperviolence and novel martial artistry.
John Wick 4 delivers on this, with various set pieces that thrill for minutes at a time (ages when it comes to screen time) without ever becoming boring or tiresome. After a great sequence in the Osaka branch of the Continental, we also experience a breathtaking fight that takes place in a Berlin nightclub that features multi-story waterfalls; at one point, there’s a shot of Wick being held by the lapels while his assailant punches him in the rain, and all I could think about was how much more satisfying this Matrix-esque image was than the actual Matrix sequel we got a couple of years ago was. The last hour of the film is one long fight as Wick tries to make his way to the Sacré-Cœur through a succession of Paris landmarks (the cowardly Marquis having hedged his bets by putting out a bounty that encourages all of Paris’s assassins to try and get to Wick, which the Marquis hopes will prevent Wick from making it to the duel in time and thus forfeiting). Each has its own distinctive flair: a battle that rages between Wick and his attackers, some in cars, some not, amidst the traffic flowing around the Arc de Triomphe; an impressively choreographed fight involving fiery shotgun blasts that is photographed entirely from above; and, finally, a grueling fight to climb the 222 stairs to the entrance of the Sacré-Cœur, which plays out like a brutally violent game of chutes and ladders.
If I had one disappointment, it was in the lack of the late Lance Reddick in the film. There was a projectionist error at my local theater, resulting in the film already being played when I entered the theater several minutes before showtime, and I saw a pivotal early scene that, once the film was rolled back and played at the correct start time as planned, turned out to fall about 15 minutes into it. From that point on in the film, Reddick does not appear, and this was a shame. I was a huge fan of Fringe during its initial run (and I still am, in case that wording is confusing) and my erstwhile roommate and I watched The Wire in 2018 and it was every bit the masterpiece I had always been told. I was deeply saddened to learn of Reddick’s untimely death just a week or so ago, and I was looking forward to getting to see more of him in this, one of his last roles. I’m always hesitant to fall into even the slightest of parasocial relationships with media figures, but I can say without equivocation that he was a damn fine actor; in fact, many years ago, when I was fancasting a Star Trek: The Next Generation reboot in the vein of JJ Abrams’s films (before Paramount opted to go back to the franchise’s roots), I thought he would have made a perfect Picard. Although we will never get to see that now, I will miss seeing him. May he rest in peace.
Perhaps our real world is violent enough without these fantasies, but maybe there is a place for this, too, in our cultural landscape. But if John Wick movies are something that you love, this one is another jewel in the crown.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond