It has all led to this. This final cavalcade of bullets, this final flurry of fists and flesh, bloodied and battered and left to litter the streets across the globe as one man seeks absolution through an endless oblivion of violent revenge. When the only way out is death, the only path forward is straight through the iron wrought gates of Hell, deeper and deeper into the center of the inferno until Baba Yaga meets the devil himself. The opera of bloodshed has reached its crescendo, a glorious kaleidoscopic vision of lead, steel, and flame — a full force sensory assault of action firing on all cylinders. This is a ballet of violence for the ages, decades of genre perfection distilled into some of the finest three hours committed to bone crunching, blood splattering celluloid in history.
While much of blockbuster American action languished in cheap gimmicks, chaotic editing, and shaky camerawork, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch shifted the landscape with John Wick (2014), action pared down to the bare bones and a bullet in the brain of everyone who crossed its protagonists path. After bringing Hong Kong to the states in grand fashion with The Matrix in 1999, Keanu Reeves returned to once again help methodically construct a new idea of what action could truly be, treating it with the reverence it deserved through a brutally efficient approach that wouldn’t ever mask or compromise the beauty of its motion.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) floated effortlessly on its sharp cast of characters and fascinating, obfuscated vision of a brutal and neverending underworld, the dialed in efficiency serving as the perfect elevation of its ideas. It had more guns, international setpieces, and a constantly escalating stream of foes dead set on ending John’s life, this successful expansion of the world of the High Table pushed everything further towards an inescapable oblivion – committed to the blood that had been shed and what must still come to pass.
Now firmly rooted as a staple of modern action filmmaking, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) truly broke free, a mind-melting synthesis of Indonesian hyperviolence and Hong Kong chaos. What were once simmering influences now on full, stunning display with reckless abandon. The approach was everything and the kitchen sink shattered into razor sharp ceramic blades to slice through bodies like paper; a waste no time, action forward thrill ride that shatters more glass than Police Story (1985) and stacks more corpses than The Raid 2: Berandal (2014). Now enlisting legendary martial artists such as Mark Dacascos (who brought Hong Kong influence to America two years before the Wachowskis with nitrous-fueled, direct-to-video masterpiece Drive (1997)) and Indonesian masters Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian (whose performance as Mad Dog in The Raid (2010) commits one of the most brutally stunning fights ever to the screen), Parabellum leant into the madness of its own universe and leverages it into a breathtaking revival of tongue-in-cheek 80s absurdity, playing the action up and keying into the levity of the chaos in between.
Fully fueled with a drive to achieve Hong Kong mayhem knowingly tuned into a further tumble through the High Table’s seven circles of violence, John Wick: Chapter 4 utilizes nearly a decade of foundation to unleash a symphonic deluge of precision tooled action, flying onto the screen with a fury that feels unsustainable only until it manages to ratchet up the energy tenfold with every new scene. John, now being hunted by the entire fury of the High Table through the power of megalomaniac Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), the price on his head skyrocketing with every body he adds to the pile, continues the globe-trotting fervor of the franchise through Osaka, Berlin, and Paris. The minutia of it all feels equal parts more important than ever and also completely inconsequential, threading more rich detail into the universe while feeding every moment into action so blindingly visceral that where we’re moving to next, why we’re moving there, or how a pistols at dawn duel to the death fits into all this doesn’t seem so critical anymore.
With a dizzying amount of homage, from visions of John Woo’s The Killer (1989) to echoes of Sammo Hung’s The Millionaire’s Express (1986) with nods in between to decades of Japanese samurai and yakuza, a fond love for Chinese wuxia, and enough bullets, firearms, and smashed cars to outshine decades of American action, it’s hard to come out of the experience without seeing a reflection of the action you’re most familiar with or fond of – and if you’re fond of all of it, it’s that much better. This recklessly unleashes so much whiplash inducing variance in combat that it seems nearly impossible, but it weaves it all together at a smooth step up from Parabellum, an effortlessly fluid entity of motion that glides from each bone-splitting moment to the next, changing the entire trajectory of the journey and the momentum of the action at a moment’s notice, never once skipping a beat.
Donnie Yen’s Caine (an old associate of John’s who has been forced into subservience to the High Table by leveraging his daughter’s life) is far and away the greatest match the series has found so far, here in incredible form as a Zatoichi-like blind swordsman radiating the effortless cool of Leon Lai’s midnight hitman in Fallen Angels (1995). In opposition to Mark Dacascos’ Zero in Parabellum, a gleeful and energetic John Wick fanboy, Caine is both even match for John and also begrudging opponent, pain worn on his face as he attempts to navigate his impossible position and toe the razor thin line between self-preservation and respect for a close friend. Nonetheless, blades shear through glass and bullets puncture skulls as he floats through his enemies like a welcoming reaper of souls. His presence is electrifying, his experience with the film’s broad and storied influence driving it all with magnetic energy.
While Yen stands out through the sheer force of being one of the biggest legends in Hong Kong film history, everyone here is up to the task, cranking the fun to eleven and the action to twelve. Skarsgård’s towering villain is deliriously uncaged but still maintains threatening weight with his unpredictable presence. Contemporary martial arts star Scott Adkins offers a turn as a strung out German Sammo Hung named Killa, a powerhouse matchup for Wick that grants a stunning setpiece in a flooded, neon-lit nightclub. Shamier Anderson becomes the film’s most unexpected star as the mysterious Tracker, an outsider still learning the ropes of the Continental while stopping at nothing to defeat John for a chance at a new life. His cheerfully violent dog companion continues the legacy of Halle Berry’s Sofia but meshes with all the rest more effectively than ever before. Lance Reddick’s brief but ever unforgettable presence comes now with devastating and tragic weight, but it all feels like a perfectly beautiful send-off to a legacy of nuanced gravitas.
There’s seemingly no end to the dizzying heights this film can reach – featuring setpiece after setpiece that feels more impossible and impressive than the last, with a sequence circling the Arc de Triomphe that puts Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) to shame and a top town, twin-stick shooter style oner that’s as shatteringly stunning to watch as it is to attempt to deconstruct how it was done at all. Through every neon light, shattered pane of glass, bullet torn through flesh, and bone bruised by brutal falls and tumbles, there isn’t a single point of John Wick: Chapter 4 that feels like it isn’t living up to the atmosphere it perpetuates. It is constant, unending chaos in the most glorious fashion and it earns every minute of its runtime by accelerating beyond itself into the entire history of action, feverishly reverent to the operatic beauty of its forefathers and furiously committed to leaving its own mark on the lasting legacy of the genre. Assuredly, it accomplishes that and so much more. This is the past, present, and future of action. Bathe in the blood and the neon, John Wick is most definitely back.