OVERALL GRADE: B
*Click HERE for a ranking of all the action sequences in the John Wick franchise
John Wick: Chapter 4 is one of the greatest collections of action sequences ever put on film. The final forty minute stretch of the film is an action lover’s paradise and a perfect representative of the dizzying heights the series has reached in its levels of action creativity (and how much it has stretched believability). Unfortunately, I think I can only give it massive props as a great "collection of action sequences" because as a genuine “film” with a logical and compelling story that forces its characters to grow through obstacles that represent important themes…it falls pretty darn flat. In that sense it reminds me of the difference between the first and second Raid films; the first one integrates the action into a lean and engaging story that brings people back to watch it from beginning to end, but the second one includes technically better and action set pieces held together by a story and characters straining to justify their existence. Put another way, Die Hard is a film I’ll watch from beginning to end and John Wick: Chapter 4 is a film I’ll type into youtube constantly to watch clips over and over of its great action set pieces. Both provide me a great thing, but I think it's important to point out the difference. Whether or not you think the action is SO good that it overcomes any storytelling deficiencies (like most argue with Jackie Chan films) will vary from person to person, but I think I generally prefer my action films to get both the story and set pieces right and admit when they don't.
The story of the fourth film essentially has two major plot threads: The first thread is John’s continued pursuit to clear his name and debts to “The Table” while the second thread sees Winston, Ian McShane’s manager of the Continental hotel, dealing with the fallout of not killing Wick as he was required to do. The two threads ultimately come together in Paris when a dueling loophole is discovered and the globe-trotting Wick must overcome various assassins (including a standout Donnie Yen) sent to stop him from exploiting it. That's about as much as you need to know because ever since the second film, the plots here continue to feel completely ad hoc and after the fact. In some ways, each new entry into the Wick franchise has begun feeling like a fan of the Saw franchise after the first film and wondering how each new entry would ad hoc make adjustments to the world-building of the previous films in order to justify some plot pickle they'd written themselves into. For this film, it's the idea of a duel and the idea that Wick can somehow put his family ticket back together (the whole Berlin thing).
There are several symptomatic signs of a creative process that began with "design action sequence ideas first and create story later" and this film is full of them: poor pacing, a fragmented storyline, and over-indulgence are a few problems I'll point out briefly here. The movie never feels like it organically flows. The first major action sequence (itself 20 minutes long) into this overstuffed Wick entry doesn’t come until 30 minutes in and then the film sputters between action and halting exposition dumps until it hits the final forty minutes given over to a collection of action set pieces, one after another. So many of the exposition sequences just feel like they are killing time, trying to look/sound cool, but actually add so little of meaning to the story. The worst offender is an interminable sit-down poker game between a group of villains (Scott Adkins gets the chance to camp it up) that just repeats over and over the stakes of the film that other characters have already made clear. The action isn't immune from being tedious either as the entire first action sequence fundamentally changes nothing major in the plot or characters. It's function is essentially an introduction to new characters, but it doesn't end until the 50 minute mark of the film!
One of the characters introduced here is Donnie Yen's blind assassin Caine. I've written an entire overview of Yen's action career HERE if you'd like to take a look. In general, I'm happy that they gave Yen a meaty and memorable role that allowed him to showcase his unique skills in a Western film. He’s essentially an Asian mirror of Wick; an unbeatable suit sporting assassin who is only in the game because of harm to his family. I do question their need to make him a blind character for two reasons: he plays a blind character in the one other major Western film audiences would know him in Rogue One and the action they want Yen to accomplish is strains credibility coming from a blind person. I know its an homage to blind characters in Asian cinema, but I just wish Yen had the chance to get away from that type.
Another symptom is a fragmented plotline that does little to make us hold up to reflection. The first major action sequence is at a Japanese version of the New York Continental Hotel and it only happens because Wick has decided to show up at their facilities forcing the “good guys” who run it to defend it – losing most of their lives in the process. The reason Wick has to show up and put everyone’s life at risk is not made very clear by the film. I think it’s really just because the filmmakers wanted the chance to include a new region of the world and really wanted to shoot Japan in a cool light. Finally, once the action begins, the film is often far too indulgent, letting it run for far too long. During some stretches there’s so much action, most of it the very familiar gunfu mixed with throws and disarms that a lot of creative ideas get drowned out in a sea of action filler. Some restraint and cinematic buildup would have helped here.
Those are the critiques, but of course they may not matter to many of you, and upon reflection, it may be a necessary evil for this creative team. The truth is that one of the film’s greatest strengths (and the franchise for that matter) is just how unrestrained the final act of action sequences are (about forty minutes worth). There are films that can pull off the balance (see Mad Max: Fury Road), but this isn’t one of them. I’m not sure you could ask the film to be restrained in some areas without losing the iconic set pieces that everyone will grow to love and remember it for. Whether or not that mix of "good" unrestrained and "bad" unrestrained makes it a lesser action film (I think so) is up to you. I don't mind admitting faults in things I love and as I wrap up this review let me remind you, I love this film and this franchise. The creatives behind the camera and in front of the camera have a clear love for action cinema and that love has produced some of the most unique, most creative, and most entertaining sequences ever made. That's something someone like me wants to make sure and celebrate.
OVERALL GRADE: B