John Wick Chapter 4 feels like a parody of itself
★ | Let's close the book on this one.
John Wick: Chapter 4 begins by copying the famous edit from Lawrence of Arabia, where a blown-out match cuts to a blinding sunrise.
It's a kind of mission statement for the overblown madness that follows. This is an epic, it says. But also, it has little personality of its own. Every visual flair or inventive set piece is a reflection of something else. There are lifts from Hong Kong cinema, Italowesterns, and even the Hitman videogame series.
By the end, most of Chapter 4 is a repetition of mindless action and barely coherent storytelling.
The plot, such as it is, can be summed up in a sentence. John Wick must kill a Marquis, another stand-in for The High Table, to secure his freedom for good. There are other side quests, reminiscent of videogame logic, but the main goal is as simple as Mario raiding Bowser's castle for Princess Toadstool.
None of the worldbuilding is inherently bad, either. You could argue that the ludicrously captivating mythology made the films so potent in the first place. There's very little internal consistency (why didn't anyone mention that a duel would solve all of John's problems two films ago?), but it's rarely bothersome. The "exposition in gorgeous international locations" bit worked for Dan Brown; it sure as hell works for John Wick.
The problem lies in everything else: particularly the action. There's a lot of it in Chapter 4, and it starts to grate well before we're even halfway.
Now, wait a minute, you say. This is an action movie! Of course, there's going to be lots of action. And that's a fair point. Some films, like Mad Max: Fury Road, have even made non-stop action work in their favor.
But compared to Fury Road, Chapter 4 is surprisingly toothless. It's a film scared of stakes because stakes mean that something in this world must matter. In John Wick, nothing matters. Not gravity, bullets, or death.
The central issue is that John can't die. He's indestructible, like the coyote from Road Runner. In Chapter 3, John was shot and thrown off the roof of The Continental. This barely slows him down, and by the time we see him in Chapter 4, he's back on his feet, angrier than ever.
(It's unclear, by the way, how long anything takes in these films. It's implied they're only a few days, maybe weeks apart, but sometimes entire seasons change between scenes without explanation.)
In Chapter 4, John is thrown off a ledge onto a stone pillar. From there, he falls down multiple meters onto concrete. He plummets from a fourth-floor window onto a car. Numerous other cars, each driving at high speed, run him over in succession. He plunges down two hundred(!) sets of stairs. He is never hurt. He might sigh, stretch, and limp momentarily, but he's never injured.
That means none of the action matters. If our hero is an indestructible machine, each set piece is just spinning plates until the plot needs to move. Even then, the film can't help but go overboard with what it does. "We have about two, maybe three minutes to get there," John says at one point, establishing how tight the situation is. Ten minutes later, they're still fighting hordes of faceless goons.
In short, it's boring to watch. There's no sense of progress because there is no buildup, no nuance, only a chorus line. Every scene is a climax. It's exhausting.
The dullness makes the cracks in the presentation that much more prominent. You start to notice how many of the goons just wait for Wick to perform his over-staged choreography. In a major sequence, you can tell everyone is pointing their guns at him, firing their CGI bullets like no tomorrow, yet the sound mix and visuals imply these guys have worse aim than stormtroopers. Because everything is CGI, they might as well be firing laser beams at this point.
Not that any impact would matter since now everyone wears kevlar-plated suits. This leads to scenes where John and his enemies hilarious pull up their tightly-spun lapels to cover their faces so bullets can ping off of them. They're within touching distance, yet apparently, an entire magazine from an assault rifle is useless against literal plot armor.
Jackie Chan once said the reason his films work, is that Jackie is always an underdog. He's never at the top when a scene begins. It's his job to climb out of whatever hole he's in. In the first John Wick, that was true of John as well.
But now, John is a vengeful spirit, a manifestation of a god of war. We know in every scene that he's going to win without a doubt. There's never a question of how he will pull it off, only how many people he'll slaughter in this location.
Going from Osaka to Berlin to Paris, John wipes out hundreds of faceless minions without breaking a sweat. He turns Paris into a warzone, yet there's never a sign that this affects the world around him. A massive fight in a nightclub doesn't even register to the civilians around them until the film needs more space for the big climax. Every scene is an excuse for another drawn-out fight, none of which propel the story forward. Take any of them out and the story remains the same. All that's missing is an on-screen prompt for the player to take control.
There's an argument that the carnage and over-the-top incredulity is the point. That Wick is a power fantasy run rampant. But surely there must be a limit to how much of a fantasy is too much. After all, playing games with cheats enabled gets stale at some point. Similarly, watching an indestructible force wipe out nameless, bland henchmen in interchangeable locations is fun once or twice.
But the John Wick franchise is now four increasingly longer films in size. It ran out of things to say years ago. What once felt like a breath of fresh air now reeks of mildew. It's an aggressive feat of over-engineered popcorn violence that is either a mockery of its existence or, as the film says, a ghost seeking a graveyard.
Either way, it's time to say goodbye.