Warning: Contains Spoilers
The first three films in the John Wick saga — 2014’s John Wick, 2017’s John Wick: Chapter 2 and 2019’s John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum — were never shy about their cultural influences, but John Wick: Chapter 4 takes it to another level. It opens with Dante before riffing a cut from Lawrence of Arabia and then segues into an Osaka segment that runs heavy on codes of honor, traditional weaponry and scenes directly out of samurai classics. That’s just the first act of a story that then proceeds to borrow from spaghetti Westerns, the Hong Kong “golden age” and even Highlander. Maybe that sounds like a mess made solely for action-film aficionados, but that’s not the case with JW4. In what appears to be the final film in the saga of John Wick, director Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves bring all their passions to bear in service of a story that finds a meaningful ending for a hero whose primary cultural footprint was cemented by double-tapping to dubstep.
At the finale of Chapter 3, Wick (Reeves) was betrayed by those he trusts most and, once again, declared revenge. JW4 picks up on that notion but quickly turns it on its head. Wick wants to strike against the High Table — a mysterious, untouchable cabal of crime lords that dictate the rules of his particular fictional universe like a pantheon of Greek gods — but they’re capable of hitting back much harder than he can hit them. Thus begs the question: Where does this all end?
That’s a big question to ask for a series fundamentally built off the pleasure of seeing a cultural icon murder gangsters over something so seemingly minor as the death of a dog. The subsequent chapters have gotten more impressive in the variety of their action set-pieces and simultaneously labyrinthine in their world-building. What has kept them going is Wick’s desire to murder anyone in the way of his way out of the assassin’s life. Don’t misunderstand: Wick kills a shocking number of people in JW4, in hilarious, imaginative and wonderful fashions. This time around, though, the inherent sadness of his character and the world around him is given much more focus.
There’s some talk about the nearly three-hour runtime, but it’s well-earned thanks to a conscious effort to introduce new characters who reflect the hero in different ways. Caine (Donnie Yen) is an assassin who “got out” in the same way Wick was allowed to in Chapter 3 — by becoming a servant of the High Table. Nobody (Shamier Anderson) is a young man just getting into the game, hoping to cash in on Wick’s bounty to free himself from onerous obligations. Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada) is an old ally — one who would never forsake the bonds of brotherhood even if that means his friendship with Wick leads to the destruction of everything he holds dear. At its core, JW4 operates like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with its hero navigating shifting allegiances as he and the cursed men in his orbit journey to their inevitable ends.
And god, what a journey it is. To detail even a handful of the dozens of different action sequences would reveal too much. Stahelski has always been open in interviews about how much time he and his teams put into preparing for their film shoots, and it shows; for the same reason, Christopher McQuarrie of Mission: Impossible fame, shares the crown with Stahelski as the two undisputed kings of American action cinema. The blowout opening fight in Osaka is simply an appetizer for what comes next.
Most significantly, it all leads somewhere. This isn’t another instance where hours of sense-shattering action are resolved with a cliffhanger promising more, more, more in a few years. It speaks to the creative vision of Stahelski and Reeves that JW4 wasn’t advertised (or subtitled) “The Final Chapter,” given that we’re now nearly a decade into experiencing onscreen deaths of cinematic icons. Perhaps it isn’t the final chapter; this is pulp storytelling, after all. But to bring the character back from his lovely ending on the steps of Sacré-Cœur would undercut the raw melancholic power of JW4, which lends the action spectacle an unexpectedly genuine emotional grounding. John Wick’s story since the second film has been trying to find his way out; it’s a credit to Stahelski and Reeves that they knew when they found theirs, too.