John Wick: Chapter 4 Review: The Greatest Modern Action Franchise Tops Itself [SXSW 2023]

You've got to love a movie star who suffers for our sins. And while Tom Cruise snags the biggest headlines for his death-defying work in the "Mission: Impossible" movies, it's hard to watch "John Wick: Chapter 4" and not admire the anguish of Keanu Reeves. Alongside the most astonishing stunt ensemble in Hollywood, the universally beloved, charmingly stoic actor offers the perfect portrait of an action hero in constant physical and emotional pain. We don't love John Wick because he kills every last motherf***** in the room, we love John Wick because he kills every last motherf***** in the room and emerges from the fight limping, sweating, panting, and making it clear that being a master assassin is the kind of task that breaks your body and soul.

We love John Wick because he's a superhuman character who displays every sign of human frailty. He bleeds. And Reeves, no stranger to tossing typical movie star egos straight in the trash, leans right into it. After four movies of cyclical revenge and torment, Reeves is ready to let his signature hero look as tired as possible. Yeah, the Baba Yaga wracks up another body count this time around, but you just want him to get the hell out of this and take a nap. Reeves, impossibly empathetic by default, lets us love the Terminator.

John Wick must suffer

If you forgot about the ending of "John Wick: Chapter 3," "Chapter 4" offers no apologies as it throws the characters and the audience straight into the meat grinder. New enemies emerge, frenemies flip across the aisles, and in true franchise fashion, select antagonists emerge as the closest thing John has to someone who understands everything he's going through. This time around, the source of John's pain is the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård, chewing into a perfectly imperfect French accent), who's been tasked by the criminal underworld's High Table with cleaning up the giant mess Mr. Wick has caused across the previous three movies by any means necessary. This means series-shaking consequences and major deaths, and the kind of bad guy who is boo/hiss-worthy to actually repair some of the seemingly irreparable decisions made in the previous movie and get certain characters talking again. 

"John Wick: Chapter 4" begins with whispers of an apocalypse for the franchise's complex world and then delivers it, tearing down familiar walls and thrusting John into situations that somehow top the increasingly bonkers action director Chad Stahelski and his fearless stunt team staged in the previous movies. "Chapter 4" goes for broke — John Wick must suffer, and we are going to thrill in his suffering.

An action fantasy

Like the previous films, "Chapter 4" continues to build out the bizarro landscape its characters inhabit, feeling very much like an adaptation of the greatest '90s Vertigo comic book series never published (consider that my highest form of praise for anything, really). With its extensive world-building, deep bench of bizarro characters, language that sometimes feels as opaque as Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien (if they were, you know, fans of machine guns), and endless rules that govern the lives of the characters, "John Wick" has always felt like an urban fantasy series, albeit one where bullets stand in place of magic. The series' dedication to carving out its own wild world that exists beneath our own and playing by its own logic recalls Walter Hill's "Streets of Fire," another breathlessly cool action movie that honestly has more in common with "Lord of the Rings" than a story set in the real world. The world of "John Wick: Chapter 4" remains singular, the kind of thing that keeps you coming back even if the initial draw is Keanu Reeves and the punishing, stylish action he endures for our pleasure.

At just hair under three hours, "Chapter 4" is indulgent for sure, but it's earned the running time at this point. If you aren't ready for scenes of characters discussing the rituals and regulations of the Wick Universe ... Well, just know the action does come, fast and furious. But this entry knows that the weirdos in the crowd (like me, and probably you, the person reading a movie website) like to understand the process of this world, and Stahelski delivers on the politics, the squabbling, the posturing, and the power struggles. And he knows that filling the cast with delightful character actors like Clancy Brown and B-movie action legends like Scott Adkins is the key to our investing in the whole thing. We want to watch these actors talk with Keanu Reeves. 

And then we want to see them try to kill each other.

How the heck did they pull this off?

And everyone wants to kill each other in "John Wick: Chapter 4," a movie whose three-act structure is built around three gigantic action scenes that shift scope, enemies, weapons, and environments so swiftly that getting bored feels like an impossibility. As you'd expect, there is a deep pleasure in watching Keanu Reeves share the screen with Hong Kong action superstar Donnie Yen, and their scenes (both when they're beating the stuffing out of each other or just talking) are a highlight of the film. An equally pleasant surprise is Shamier Anderson, playing a new character who is destined to be a fan-favorite (and whose loyal dog nearly walks away with the movie).

And while some returning characters don't get as much to do as you'd hope (Lance Reddick and Laurence Fishburne just pop in to say hello, and Ian McShane's Winston is largely sidelined), the film leans into Reeves and the newcomers with gusto, throwing them into action sequences that are destined to make stunt coordinators all over the world lose sleep as they wonder "How the heck did they pull that off?" 

The final hour of the film is essentially one large action scene, and one staged with such bravura skill and visual wit that it exposes the vast majority of American action direction as the lazy sham it is. Stahelski, a former stunt performer and coordinator himself, knows how important it is to showcase these talented folks and make sure the audience can appreciate and follow their every action. That "every action" also involves staging choices that feel just plain unfair to every other action movie you'll see this year strongly suggests that he is the finest Hollywood director of gun battles, fist fights, sword duels, and car chases working at the moment.

Yeah, I'm thinking he's back

However, "John Wick: Chapter 4" is all about Keanu Reeves, the ego-free leading man who has proven endlessly fascinating to audiences both on and offscreen. At this point, Wick has become his signature role, eclipsing Neo from "The Matrix" and Ted Theodore Logan. And of course it has. This is a role built to showcase that indefinable stillness, the deadpan humor, that self-effacing sense of suffering. It's no secret that Reeves does a great deal of his own stunt work, and Stahelski's camera makes sure you know it. There is nothing about Reeves' work as an action hero that feels phoned-in, or vain. John Wick remaining empathetic even after he's wiped a hundred bad guys off the map remains a very special kind of acting magic trick, and one only suited to his particular set of skills.

By this point, someone reading a "John Wick: Chapter 4" movie review already has an opinion on the "John Wick" franchise. If more world-building, bigger action, and a deeper embrace of what its leading man does well all perk up your ears, you know what you need to know. As someone who has been in the tank for these movies for nearly a decade now, the fourth film is everything I wanted out of these movies. Yeah, I'm thinking he's back.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10