The John Wick series has a simple formula: Keanu Reeves plays the title character, an assassin who engages in protracted fights, first against the rivals who killed his dog, and later against "The High Table," which rules the international brotherhood of assassins to which Wick belongs.
Throughout it all is some of the most stylized, expertly choreographed movie violence ever depicted. Gone is the kinetic, shaky-cam style of the Bourne movies and their various sequels and imitators; instead, this is on-screen combat in which spatial continuity and the way rooms are used is important. Sometimes the fights are with guns, and hand-to-hand. Directed by stuntman-turned-filmmaker Chad Stahelski, they're always fantastic.
The latest in the series, John Wick: Chapter 4, takes this formula to the next level. It's the best film of the lot, and probably the best Hollywood action film since last year’s Top Gun: Maverick (another film with a star who’s pushing 60.) That's mostly thanks to four or five action set pieces that are breathtaking.
Chapter 4 picks up where the previous film, John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum, left off: John and the High Table are gunning for each other. The bad guy at the head of the Table is "the Marquis Vincent de Gramont" (Bill Skarsgård), who’s sent Caine (Donnie Yen) to assassinate Wick. Caine’s a fantastic creation, a blind man who’s nevertheless great with a gun and even better with a sword and his fists—and he's only on the mission to kill his old friend because the Table has threatened his daughter.
As for Wick, he remains assisted by Winston (Ian McShane), the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and Charon (Lance Reddick, the much-loved actor from The Wire who passed away last week, on the eve of the movie’s release). New characters include Scott Atkins as a corpulent German antagonist, who wears a fat suit, one that doesn't stop him from doing convincing karate kicks. There’s also Shamier Anderson, a charismatic actor playing a "tracker" whose loyalties are mysterious, but who brings this franchise back to is dog-protecting roots. As usual, I didn't care much about the mythology involving the Table and its various rules, but was enthralled by the action scenes.
The new film has five distinct fantastic action set pieces. The best is the first and longest one, featuring a series of fight scenes in a Japanese palace. Another takes place during a rave, with bodies flying multiple stories while revelers dancing around. There's one at the Arc de Triomphe, and another, on a long staircase, plays like a homage to the myth of Sisyphus.
There's a sequence, repeating one from the third film, in which there's a large bounty on Wick's head and an endless series of killers is out to collect. This one, though, is narrated throughout by a smooth-talking radio DJ. And there's an amazing sequence in which the fighting is shot from the top, in what looks like a continuous take. It leads up to an ending that took guts.
Keanu Reeves is 58, but one never gets the sense he’s too old to continue as an action hero. With this series, as well as the 2021 Matrix sequel, he’s done some of the best action work of his career.