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At a sprawling 169 minutes, John Wick: Chapter 4 runs four minutes longer than No Time to Die and 17 minutes longer than Mission: Impossible — Fallout, its two nearest contemporaries in the derring-do sweepstakes. It’s a whopping 68 minutes longer than 2014’s John Wick, the out-of-nowhere sleeper hit from stunt players turned filmmakers Chad Stahelski (who has directed all the Wick sequels) and David Leitch (who left the series to make Atomic Blonde and Bullet Train, among others). What else has inflated by 70 percent in just eight-and-a-half years?
On a poster, John Wick looked like a dumb movie with a hilariously nonsensical tagline—“Don’t set him off!”—that made you wonder if the film might’ve once been titled Johnny Stick ‘O’ Dynamite or John Carbon Monoxide Alarm. But the film disarmed us all, accomplishing the sinful trick of making ultraviolence feel fun again, a consequence of its weird milieu of (mostly) code-adherent killers, and the balletic precision with which its multimedia melees were choreographed and performed. In middle age, star Keanu Reeves had become exactly the right kind of winking stoic to make us sympathize with the once and future “Baba Yaga”—a recently widowed, onetime super-assassin who, by the time the credits rolled, had snuffed out (another) 84 human lives because some little wannabe gangster twerp murdered his dog. In Mr. Wick’s defense, they were deplorable humans. And Daisy was an adorable dog.
John Wick’s 2017 and 2019 follow-ups upped the ante on wildly inventive action set pieces that often worked as comedy and poetry. These installments also told us more—too much more, really—about the quasi-religious order of hipster covert assassins that populate this world. It’s a fraternity from which Our Man Wick has resigned or been rendered “excommunicado,” then promptly murdered his way back into, a couple of times now. Haunted movie hitmen are rarely this indecisive.
Chapter 4, I’m sorry to tell you, is where the spell wore off for me. Derek Kolstad, the screenwriter who created the series, has been ejected from it like a hot shell casing from one of Mr. Wick’s lovingly name-checked artisanal firearms. His replacements, Shay Hatten and Michael Finch, have crafted a meandering installment that would appear to wrap up on a note of finality—though Stahelski hasn’t ruled out further sequels, and spinoffs are already in production—but forgets to build any tension or secure our emotional buy-in along the way. It looks fantastic, it goes on forever, and it ends with two enemies facing off at dawn with antique single-shot dueling pistols. It’s Barry Lyndon, basically.
You may recall that the prior Wick ended with Ian McShane’s Winston, a Wick ally, shooting our antihero to get himself back into the good graces of the High Table, which is apparently both the Illuminati and the International Trade Association of Licensed Professional Assassins. Though Wick took the bullet and fell off a roof, it was all a trick! Chapter 4 opens with Wick and Winston, plus Laurence Fishburne’s underused character the Bowery King, and, all too briefly, the late, great Lance Reddick, against Murder International. It’s represented this time by Bill Skarsgård as an effete new villain called the Marquis. His headquarters looks like Versailles, but there isn’t anything else very memorable about him.
The only way Wick can stop the High Table from hunting him and his confederates is to issue a formal challenge to the Marquis. To do that, Wick must first kill some other guy to—again!—earn his way into one of the recognized crime families, which will then sponsor him in the duel, like he’s applying for a work visa. The guy he’s sent to rub out turns out to be English martial arts star Scott Adkins, who’s made up to look like one of the villains from Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. (The least you can say about the Wick-iad is that it’s a more deserving home for beloved character actors and aging action heroes than those lame Expendables films.)
There are some other welcome new faces, chief among them legendary Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen as a blind assassin called Caine, and Hiroyuki Sanada as Shimazu Koji, manager of the Osaka branch of the assassins-only Continental hotel franchise. A less successful addition is Shamier Anderson as an assassin who has an expertly trained canine ally, just like Halle Berry’s character in John Wick 3. A generation younger than most of the guys he’s fighting, Anderson might be the most formidable of the bunch in real life but on screen he never feels like much of a threat. Though his character is called “Tracker” in the credits, he’s more often addressed as “Mr. Nobody.” The fact that Kolstad and Leitch worked together on a Wick-esque revenge flick called Nobody just two years ago, and that Kurt Russell appeared in a couple of Fast & Furious movies playing a character also called Mr. Nobody, is a good indication of how recycled this installment feels.
Naturally, Stahelski and Co. serve up the artful fights—whether its guns, swords, or martial arts—we’ve come to demand, a preponderance of them occurring, as the bylaws of the franchise dictate, in discos and neon-lit museum galleries. (Chapter 4 actually shot inside the Louvre, not that you’d know it, because Dan Laustsen’s nocturnal cinematography is dim enough that the production value of filming in a real place never really manifests the way it does in the Missions: Impossible or the 007s.) Individually, these battles go on longer than ever before, but they thrill us less. While Stahelski manages a few formal innovations, like a room-to-room gunfight that’s shot from above as though he’s removed the roof of a dollhouse, and later, a fight up the famous steps at Montmartre, none of the bloodletting is as distinct or imaginative as even the second-tier set pieces from Chapter 3. Remember the library fight that flowed straight into a battle in a knife museum (?), then went into a horse-versus-motorcycles pursuit sequence? No? Well, watch it again.
JW4’s fisticuffs and gunplay are still executed at the highest level of craft, but what little is new here is diluted by the surfeit of too-familiar stuff surrounding it. Worse, the movie suffers from a bizarre deficit of stakes, making the sagging middle of Chapter 4 something these movies have never been: boring. John Wick left us wanting more; Chapter 4 serves up the bodies until we choke. It’s too much of a very bad thing that (for three movies anyway) once felt good.
John Wick: Chapter 4 opens in theaters nationwide on March 24.