John Wick 4 Perfects the Art of Escalation

“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” ends with the titular character losing a finger, fighting through dozens of assassins, and tumbling off a five-story building onto brick pavement after being shot multiple times in the chest. After somehow not dying to his injuries, John Wick has returned to a deserved fanfare, as “John Wick: Chapter 4” is a perfect cap-off to the groundbreaking series. 

Let’s get this out of the way first: the action is nothing short of incredible, obviously. The signature “John Wick style” as envisioned by director Chad Stahelski is polished to a slick sheen. It’s flashy but not unbelievable, gratuitous but not overwhelming, outlandish without losing its touch of grounding realism. There are scenes so well-choreographed and paced that you lose yourself in them, only pausing to breathe when John does — one of the early fights lasts a solid ten-ish minutes and I didn’t notice until John nearly collapsed after fighting through several dozen assailants. Even with the wealth of action, there are moments of situational comedy and personalization — the legendary Donnie Yen’s blind fighter, Caine, for example, has a distinct fighting style from his old friend John or the hungry newcomer Mr. Nobody.

It also helps that “John Wick 4” mixes up the regular gun-fu formula — stylish martial arts mixed with the deadly efficiency of a pistol — by continuing to add new ways of “resolving” conflict. The opening set piece, for example, takes place in Osaka, Japan, and has John and his allies fighting through oni-armored assassins with katanas, bows and arrows, and nunchucks. The final fight of the movie is a Western-style duel with single-shot pistols. 

There are scenes so well-choreographed and paced that you lose yourself in them, only pausing to breathe when John does

The final action set piece lasts almost an hour and spans a wide-open car fight around the Arc de Triomphe, a chase through Parisian streets, close-quarters mayhem in an abandoned apartment building, and up the 300-step Montmartre stairs (twice, in fact, when John gets kicked all the way back down). Despite its scope, scale, and duration, it never once feels bloated, nor did it ever feel lacking. It covered every base I would expect of a finale to the John Wick legend.

After three movies of escalating the stakes and suspension of disbelief I fully expected to be disillusioned, yet I wasn’t. Part of that was the continued excellence of the stunts, but a large part came from the incredible cinematography. 

The “John Wick” series always had a distinct cinematographic flair to it, and brilliant uses of color, all of which is amped up to 11. In moments of calm there are beautifully framed compositions, and in action it’s buttery smooth as it flows from place to place. Colors are everywhere — vibrant neon lights and bright orange sands and the yellow glow of street lamps. 

One particularly gorgeous scene is the penultimate fight in Paris, the camera twisting up to have a bird’s-eye view of the apartment complex, right as John gets his hands on the flashiest weapon so far: a shotgun with Dragon’s Breath shells, which does exactly what the name implies. It’s difficult to describe just how transcendent this protracted action sequence is, seen from right above almost like a videogame. It’s pure eye candy in the best way possible: It’s cinema.

The artistry of the film also applies to other elements of filmmaking. The set design is immaculate and lovingly melodramatic (why is there a single poker table with five spotlights on it?). The soundtrack is adrenaline-inducing, aggressive, and uniquely Wickian. Costume design remains interesting with wildly stylish attire across the entire world. The worldbuilding is both absurd and wildly engrossing, a universe in which anyone and everyone could be an assassin. There’s a TV show and a spin-off movie coming out soon and I can see why.

Despite the creators’ best efforts, though, I can’t say this movie is airtight. The “John Wick” series has done a great job of suspending disbelief but there are still moments that push the audience a little bit too far. The Arc de Triomphe in particular was a bit too much at times. For one, it’s one of the few places in the movie where they leaned on the bottomless magazine trope, and drivers just keep driving through despite the active gunfire. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the scene, though, so I can excuse it for the sake of enjoyment.

After three movies of escalating the stakes and suspension of disbelief I fully expected to be disillusioned, yet I wasn’t.

Really, my biggest complaint with the movie is, unfortunately, Keanu Reeves. He’s an excellent performance actor and functions as the protagonist, but he barely speaks in this movie compared to the previous three, and for good reason; when he does talk he sounds like he hasn’t spoken a word before in his life. It’s odd, considering his great acting in the first movie, and how stellar the rest of the cast is.

Aside from these small issues I can’t say I disliked anything about the movie. I was grinning almost the entire time, so much that my face was sore by the end, and I — along with nearly everyone in the packed theater, my dad included — came out of it satisfied and impressed. 

The original “John Wick” came almost as a rebuke to the incessant shaky-cam of the 2000s, and has since inspired a wave of moviemakers inspired by its signature style, clever set pieces, and magnificently easy-to-follow and brutal action. Now, in the age of abused, rushed CGI and disappointing sequels, “John Wick 4” proves not only that everyone behind it still has the spark, they’re just as willing to let it go — so far as we know, it is the last of the mainline series. 

Perhaps it’s a sign that we’ve reached the peak, the very climax of what “John Wick” as a series can reach. Perhaps they’ve conceded that they can’t go any higher. I, however, think it shows that this franchise defined by escalation does know restraint. I sincerely, in this age of endless franchising and connected universes and monotony, think that I’m right and that John Wick can go out in the blaze of glory he deserves.