On Set: John Wick’s back, but missing something

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts checks in on America's favorite retired assassin and tells us if his story is still worth telling.
Photo credit: Lionsgate Films

by | Mar 30, 2023 | Culture, Film & TV

John Wick, the character, burst into our consciousness back in 2014 and his sudden popularity signaled the return to prominence of Keanu Reeves, the actor. Both arrivals were a pleasant surprise. John Wick, because he was amazing. And Keanu Reeves, because we have all, always, really liked him. Don’t try to deny it. It was great to see him attached again to a project with so much escapist promise. The first film in the franchise was a straightforward revenge plot with enough cartoonish murder to fill ten video games. It was very fun, and it set up a world I wanted to see more of. With Chapter 4 now out in theaters, I’m still getting my wish.

If Chapter 1 was essentially a proof of concept, Chapter 2 did the important work of establishing the mythology of the John Wick universe. Chapter 3 then got to play around in that world a bit more (and perhaps get a little too lost in it), which set up the big showdown at the heart of Chapter 4. John Wick’s kill count, up to this point – you can find this exact number online, of course – is at least 299 people, which honestly feels too low and shockingly high at the same time. He’s been plowing straight through the mysterious hit-man society that formerly employed him for three straight films and, in Chapter 4, he is clearly trying to bring the mayhem to an end by doing a whole lot more of it.

Just like what came before, John Wick Chapter 4 is at its best when John is at his best. That means killing. The set pieces are all gloriously complicated and smoothly executed, like a professional ballet company at work. And the production team’s commitment to using practical effects and stunt work (as much as possible anyhow) is commendable. There’s one top-down sequence that is breathtaking in its creativity and style as we watch John clear a ruined building from above. It must have been an incredible challenge to choreograph that one shot, and the result is among the film’s best moments.

Stylish gunplay can only take you so far, though, and it should not be asked to take you as far as nearly three hours. That’s right. John Wick Chapter 4 clocks in at 2 hours and 49 minutes, which is objectively too long for this kind of experience. An hour less of everything would have served this story well, especially since the lore of John’s world isn’t as consistent or interesting as it was in Chapter 2. To be fair, these films aren’t known for their scripts, or their performances. Keanu’s lines still feel like they were recorded on a completely different day, in a completely different town and then spliced into the final cut right before release. But his wooden delivery is high camp now. It’s on purpose, we expect it, and we love it. It’s not the point anyhow. It never has been with Keanu. Chapter 4 is simply too bloated and repetitive, and it breaks apart under its own temporal weight.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the recent passing of Lance Reddick, who plays Continental Hotel concierge Charon in the series. He’s been a fan favorite since the beginning and, though he played only a brief role in Chapter 4, his commanding onscreen presence made everything around him more plausible, and more enjoyable. Rest in peace, Mr. Reddick.

New cult classics like the John Wick franchise get a free pass on most things, and they should. I forgive nearly all of Chapter 4’s minor plot and pacing sins, because the action is so fantastic and exhilarating. But a movie like this needs to know itself, and not take advantage of the goodwill its predecessors have earned. There’s just not enough energy left to sustain three hours.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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