‘John Wick: Chapter 4’ Reaches Stunning Heights In a Masterful Stroke of Action Cinema 

Everything at the theater seems to be a franchise. Only a few deserve our anticipation when years pass between entries. This one was definitely worth the wait. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is a movie that is not only a sequel, but an exhilarating celebration of action cinema as an art form. Too often we can bemoan the typical runtime of popcorn entertainments. This one clocks in at 2 hours and 49 minutes. Unlike many of its crass imitators or fellow franchises, this movie absolutely justifies its length. Not a single scene is wasted and even its most boldly ludicrous moments shine with great invention, style and attention to detail. Director Chad Stahelski seems to be content with this as the concluding chapter. If that’s the case, he makes sure the finale is pure fireworks.

It’s all presented as glossy pop art myth and so we begin with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) still being hunted by the underground assassin society of the High Table. His war with the elite institution in the last two movies has left a high body count, while stripping Winston (Ian McShane), of his prestige as head of the Continental hotel which doubled as an assassin hub. The new head of the whole organization is the stylishly villainous Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), who is determined to take down Wick once and for all. Our dark-suited hero has been laying low under the protection of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). He is soon lured out and heads for Japan to seek help from Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada), who runs the Osaka Continental. On the trail of Wick are two other skilled killers, the blind and efficient Caine (Donnie Yen) and Tracker (Shamier Anderson), who is waiting for the bounty on Wick’s head to reach the right price to risk all.

This series has come a long way since the 2014 original “John Wick,” still a tight, curiously eloquent action film driven by high style and narrative simplicity. As a filmmaker, Stahelski never let the bigger budgets of the sequels ruin what made his concept special. Instead, he used greater resources to ever more fully explore a particular craft of moviemaking. Film students interested in genre storytelling and pop entertainment should take notes on the marriage between editing and rhythm, photography and plot. Like “Chapter 2” and “Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” “Chapter 4” can first be enjoyed as an immersive aesthetic experience. Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen create environments we can inhabit sensually. Like Tony Scott, they understand action can be lush. Single moments in Japan can be savored, such as Wick thinking while framed next to a blossom tree caressed by breezes. The Marquis schemes in chambers fit for Marie Antoinette while lit like some baroque masterpiece. When the bounty on Wick’s head is raised, the information is relayed through operators working on vintage equipment and a DJ playing select cuts on vinyl.

Characters in a “John Wick” movie are created to fully entertain without suffering from over exposition. They are meant to exist as engaging archetypes, given dialogue that’s actually refined, even smart, which makes the unbelievable convincing. The casting is precise and makes it all deliver. Donnie Yen nearly steals the show from Keanu Reeves as a ferociously deadly blind assassin who can wait patiently, eating noodles, while the other hitmen are mowed down by Wick. Scott Adkins disappears under amazing makeup on the level of “The Whale,” capped with gold teeth as a criminal who sits down with Wick for a card game that expands into a scorching shootout in a waterfall-drenched nightclub. Walking between these figures, gun drawn, is Reeves still bringing to the role the quiet depth that is close to securing the character icon status. We sense Wick nearing the end of the road, growing tired of all the killing, even if he can take shots and knifings and keep going. The screenplay by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch also elegantly brings back the original drive behind the character, namely missing his dead wife.

Then there is the action, which is what in the end, “John Wick” is all about. Stahelski, famously a former stuntman himself, raises the bar in “Chapter 4” for the entire genre. Continuing to expand the style he established in the first movie, he again refuses to give in to the quick-cutting, jarring trends of other directors. His sequences are astounding because we can actually see and follow the moves, the choreography and feel enveloped by the pacing. Shootouts and fights are designed almost like ballet. Caine and Wick square off with swords and guns with a fierce grace. An extended battle inside a building is shot from above in the kind of pans and tracking worthy of Brian De Palma. A shootout around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, with Wick and his opponents aiming and firing in-between speeding cars is simply a masterpiece on its own. Stahelski is adept at combining the violence with humor, so we can laugh when the adrenaline takes a break. The music by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard feverishly mixes orchestral and electronic sounds, combined with great song choices, like a French take on “Paint It Black.”

A great action director knows how to wind it down. “Chapter 4” builds to a gentlemen’s duel and then a meditative final scene. Stahelski finds space to say everything that needs to be said with this world and its inhabitants. Revenge is no longer the point but her hero seeking a decent exit. Editor Nathan Orloff deserves to be mentioned because a key sign of a good movie is in how one feels about the running time. A short bad movie can seem endless while a long, excellent one seems too short. On a cultural level, it’s a final confirmation of Keanu Reeves as one of film’s key action stars. Alongside “The Matrix,” this is his second, trend-setting character in the genre, not counting his other cult titles. Most actors are lucky if they can inhabit at least one classic role. With his demeanor that defines coolness, Reeves is in a class of his own when it comes to heroes who can scale buildings and command fast cars. We wouldn’t mind seeing John Wick return, but if this is goodbye, it’s a worthy farewell to a franchise that knows how to combine excitement with an actual sense of art.

John Wick: Chapter 4” releases March 24 in theaters nationwide.