John Wick and the Tragedy of the Aimless Assassin
The hit man faces off with his scariest foe yet: his own weariness.
John Wick has never really been a chatty fella. The character’s one big monologue in the first Wick film comes as even more of a shock than his ability to mow down dozens of gangsters while armed with just a pistol and his wits. With the upcoming release of John Wick: Chapter 4, Keanu Reeves has now spent nine years playing the quasi-mute bogeyman di tutti bogeymen, the scariest assassin in a world littered with merciless hired killers who are all chasing each other for the next big bounty. But after watching the series’ newest installment, in theaters next week, I’m starting to worry that Mr. Wick is losing his passion for so much stoic ultraviolence.
In his first scene in Chapter 4, Wick is ferociously punching a padded wooden post, getting ready for two hours and 49 minutes of bone-crunching, blood-gushing action. But asked if he’s ready to make his latest comeback, Wick seems to gather all of his might just to growl a one-word answer: “Yeah.” Four movies deep, he remains a grumpy golem out for blood, bursting into glitzy villain lairs and dispatching hundreds of henchmen with inimitable style. Less and less clear, however, is why he’s throwing himself into all this mayhem. The first Wick movie is a diamond-sharp tale of revenge: The grieving assassin comes out of retirement to obliterate the mobsters who killed his puppy. The maximalism of Chapter 4, on the other hand, can only partially distract from the fact that Wick’s current mission feels a little lost; now his biggest enemy seems to be his own weariness.
The Wick universe is labyrinthine, featuring a “High Table” of hit men with more subcommittees and bylaws than a New York co-op board. The extensive world building has always been part of the fun of the series; virtually every character is at least a part-time hired killer, paying for plush stays in secret grottos with gold coins, and arming themselves with a plethora of fancy guns and bulletproof dinner jackets.
An important part of the Wickiverse is the Continental, a five-star hotel chain; the New York branch is run by the honey-tongued Winston (played by Ian McShane). At the Continental, violence is sacrilegious. In fact, the reason for all of Chapter 4’s brouhaha traces back to Chapter 2, when Wick rashly disposed of an irritating Italian gangster on hotel grounds, in violation of the holy rules. Subsequently, as recounted in Chapter 3, he started going after the lawmakers behind the byzantine system. As a result, by Chapter 4, practically the whole world has turned on Wick, and the bounty on his head has soared into eight-figure territory. His closest remaining allies are a grandstanding hobo called the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and Winston, who continues to help Wick despite previously being punished for doing so.
Even I, a devotee of this series, am having trouble keeping up. Wick is fighting for his life but also for some amorphous revenge on the faceless administrators who want to wipe him out just because he broke one rule two movies ago. This is the first Wick not written by Derek Kolstad, and the current writers, Shay Hatten and Michael Finch, definitely have a looser grasp on the reins of this bizarre narrative. But the director, Chad Stahelski, has been with the series since its inception and is clearly working with his biggest budget yet, so he compensates for any story weakness by serving up a seven-course meal of set pieces.
Surprisingly, on the whole, Chapter 4 basically succeeds. Yes, I checked my watch a few times during the movie, and I might have cut some of the more portentous conversations about fate and free will that played out between a bunch of blade-wielding bureaucrats. But by the last hour of its elephantine running time, Chapter 4 is a preposterous blast—especially when the action relocates to Paris and sees Wick fighting homicidal drivers by the Arc de Triomphe before attempting to ascend the hefty staircase to the Sacré-Cœur basilica while villains leap at him like deadly lemmings. At that point, I didn’t care what his motivations were. I was simply cheering for him to get to the top.
The film also puts him in Osaka, where another branch of the Continental is run by his old buddy Shimazu Koji (a wonderfully stern Hiroyuki Sanada), and Berlin, where he faces off against a gigantic boss played by the martial-arts legend Scott Adkins, who seems to relish the challenge of doing high kicks in a padded suit and heavy makeup. Through his travels, Wick is pursued by a blind assassin named Caine (the uber-famous Hong Kong star Donnie Yen) and a charming newcomer who brands himself “Mr. Nobody” (Shamier Anderson); both are unwilling allies of the heinous Marquis (Bill Skarsgård), a preening fool who clearly graduated magna cum laude from the University of Evil Villains.
I could explain Wick lore all day and night, and it still wouldn’t make total sense. The universal language of these movies is action, crisply choreographed and reliant on realistic punches, kicks, jumps, and falls, blended with uncanny, laser-accurate gunfights. Wick can somehow shoot a distant foe between the eyes without even looking; he can also do it while engaged in a samurai battle with four other people and riding on the roof of a muscle car that’s falling out of a skyscraper window. (Note: The latter scenario has yet to happen in a Wick movie. But it feels plausible.)
Chapter 4 has plenty of death-defying moments along these lines, but they’re weighed down by Wick’s increasing aimlessness—even some of his allies are beginning to admit that they don’t really understand what his end game is. Unlike the previous movies, the film does opt for an ending that at least suggests the possibility of genuine finality. But I’m unconvinced that this series will ever really end. As long as the franchise keeps making money, Reeves will continue to tote a Glock and face off with other legends of the genre, running around the world, or as far as his legs can carry him.