John Wick: Chapter 4 review – enjoyably pulpy slaughterfest
Keanu Reeves returns as the indestructible hitman in a follow-up that confuses bigger for better at a patience-stretching almost three-hour runtime
Tue 14 Mar 2023 03.00 GMT
Late in the fourth film bearing his name, indestructible hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) falls down some stairs. Quite a few stairs, actually – tossed by an enemy down the 222 steps of Paris’s famed Rue Foyatier on his way to the final showdown at the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, he tumbles down one flight after another like a Slinky in an immaculately tailored suit. He finally crumples on to a landing, only to get hurled once more down the rest of the stairs, at which point the absurd amount of time spent watching him roll back over the path he just climbed turns into its own deadpan, sisyphean joke.
This bit isn’t quite as funny during the rest of John Wick: Chapter 4’s bloated two hours and 49 minutes, though it’s not really meant to be. To crib a phrase, everything happens so much to our killing-machine hero as he blazes a bloody trail from New York to Osaka to Berlin to Paris. Scene after scene drags on far past the point of redundancy, the zillion solemn ceremonies and over-the-shoulder flips landing in monotony without the saving grace of a winking laugh. An entirely earnest and altogether fatal fondness for itself has drawn out a franchise once prized for its lean-and-mean ferocity into a logy death march set at a dirge’s pace. Roger Ebert memorably declared that no good movie is too long, his point not that fun can go on forever, but that a well-told story takes as long as it takes. Wick’s latest outing indulges in muchness for its own sake, and where unrestrained excess has blown open the gate for mad inspiration in so many others, the director, Chad Stahelski, lacks the showman’s instinct for building and payoff.
In the side-quest-clogged narrative as in the virtuosic fight sequences that far overstay their welcome, a viewer starts to feel the difference between maximalism and merely having a lot of stuff, somewhere around the third hour and mostly in our glutes. Like gun-fu ace Wick, Stahelski’s crew just kept shooting and shooting and shooting, too caught up in the action to stop and consider what it’s all for.
This needless elongation frustrates in particular because the plot at hand fits within a single sentence: hunted by his former assassin guild, Wick must clear his name by defeating the new head honcho Marquis (Bill Skarsgard, whose pouty lips and literal silver spoon in his mouth mark him as an effete, privileged object of hatred) in a duel. Should be simple enough, if not for the world-building arcana this series’ writers have decided its audience can’t get enough of. We’re made to wade through about an hour of movie before an ally notifies J-Dubs that this get-out-of-execution-free card even exists, except that he can’t formally file his challenge with the Marquis until lone wolf Wick pledges his allegiance to one of the guild’s officially recognized cells. And he can’t do that until he snuffs out a rotund local mobster (the great Scott Adkins, nimble even in a Norbit-quality fat suit) to curry their favor. And so on and so on.
To the extent that Wick’s vehicles follow the same schematic as musicals, with shootouts taking the place of song-and-dance numbers, the script doesn’t have to do much more than usher the characters from one showstopper to the next. And each set piece has an amusing gimmick; an army of guys in bulletproof suits must be dispatched with headshots, a blind mercenary (Donnie Yen) picks off foes using doorbell sensors, an aerial shot follows Wick on a shotgun-flamethrower rampage. But the legendary Freed unit behind MGM’s Golden Age extravaganzas understood that you only get one multi-part dream-ballet fantasy suite, and that your grand finale – in this case, a melee in the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe that plays like a life-or-death game of Frogger – should come at the end. Just as an actor-turned-director gives his cast the free rein for scenery-gnawing he’s always wanted for himself, former stuntman Stahelski’s evident and often endearing affection for his professional peers gets the better of him in impressive battles nonetheless hampered by two or three extraneous beats.
There was a time when an economical-minded studio head would have forcibly excised the pointless horseback chase in the Middle East, or the wheel-spinning interlude in Germany, or the morally ambiguous Tracker (Shamier Anderson) that screenwriters Shay Hatten and Michael Finch can’t figure out what to do with. For whatever reason – the endless scroll of streaming content reorienting our concept of a long time, perhaps – Hollywood has made its peace with the three-hour blockbuster, and expects the public to do the same. The most faithful faction of the Wick fandom will undoubtedly be pleased to see their belief that you can’t have too much of a good thing put into practice. Those who appreciated the original for its brutal, sinewy agility have another thing coming: a lumbering, stultifying gargantua of a film willing to kill everything except its darlings.
John Wick: Chapter 4 will be released in the US, UK and Australia on 24 March