After seeing “John Wick 4,” which is already a certified box office hit at a time when few people actually go to the movies, I got online to see what people were saying about the film because, well, I had a feeling my reaction to the movie was different than most. So I went to the social media film review site Letterboxd and poked around a bit.
In theory, democratizing a historically pretentious profession such as film criticism should yield some interesting results. In practice, gamifying film reviews with “likes” frequently results in people reducing in-depth critical analysis to vaguely puerile koans designed to get likes. And lo and behold, one of the top reviews on Letterboxd of “John Wick 4” is a pithy rave masquerading as a nearly perfect indictment of the film: “I can’t wait to finally lose my virginity so I can say that this was better than sex.”
Indeed, the problem with “John Wick 4” is that it feels like an anti-social incel gamer was locked in his room with whatever the 18th iteration of the visual artificial intelligence platform Midjourney is going to look like and spent a week typing in detailed prompts to make the action film of his stunted dreams. Maybe “John Wick 4” isn’t actually a film produced by AI, but it perfectly captures the zeitgeist of a world on the cusp of producing Keanu Reeves movies actually created by The Matrix. It is a pinnacle of human achievement where one struggles to find any trace of humanity.
If that sounds harsh, and it is, that does not diminish the technical achievements of this film. On one level, you can deposit your brain somewhere outside the theater and bask in the visceral thrills of watching Reeves dispatch villainous NPCs by the dozen. In particular, a car chase and fight scene amidst the chaotic traffic in the roundabout surrounding the Arc de Triomphe is a real highlight in the annals of action movies. But the sum is less still less than its parts.
Indeed, the movie leans so heavily into the visual language of video games that it’s something of a generational Rorschach test. One fight seen is shot directly from above, so you can see the conflict playing out across the floor plan in multiple rooms at once like someone hit a sequence on the controller and the game shifted from POV to map view. It’s thrilling to watch, but, at the same time, it overtly decenters the viewer in a way that’s alien to more traditional film direction — where the camera’s perspective puts viewers into the narrative, instead of literally having them floating above it.
But floating above what’s going on in “John Wick 4” is just as well because much of the time, characters and motivations are so far removed from the story there’s no point in drawing in the viewer anyway. Bill Skarsgård plays the villain who, in John Wick fashion, is known as only “the Marquis” and given no real back story beyond the fact he’s a sadistic Frenchman. Despite this, Skarsgård struts around in sumptuous suits and manages to be the only person in the film that looks like he’s having any fun. Thankfully, the supporting cast is further populated by especially likable veteran actors, namely Ian McShane, Lawrence Fishburne, Clancy Brown, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Lance Riddick, who sadly died just before the film’s release. These men who know how to hit their marks and be a welcome presence even in underbaked material regrettably devoid of any dialogue approaching wit.
Martial arts superstar Donnie Yen, of “Ip Man” and Star Wars fame, plays a fellow assassin sent to hunt John Wick throughout the film. While Yen’s skillset is an obvious asset to a film where about 85 percent of the two hours and 49 minute running time are fight scenes, the fact his character is blind is the only unique thing about his character – and even that is just fan service to a very old martial arts trope. (Seeing Yen onscreen also requires you to overlook the fact that in real life he’s a commie sympathizing bastard.) Canadian actor Shamier Anderson also does what he can with a character known as “the tracker,” whose gimmick is that he fights alongside an alternately vicious and sweet German Shepherd. If you’ve seen the previous films, you instantly know that the presence of a dog in the film is the John Wick universe equivalent of Chekhov’s gun.
Unfortunately, the real problem with the film is John Wick himself. While the original film in the franchise wasn’t exactly a quiet character study, it established a relatable protagonist with real motivations — he endured his wife’s tragic death and they killed his dog! — so that when the film inevitably became a cartoonish revenge-o-matic, the audience was invested in Wick taking down the corrupt “High Table” that governs the underworld of assassins he exists in. Over the course of the sequels, the mythos of the “High Table” has unfurled into something that is at once vague and convoluted, while Wick’s character has so definitively morphed into a sociopathic killer his righteous motivations are at this point a dim memory. Fairly late in “John Wick 4,” our supposed hero says he wants to be remembered as a “loving husband.” Suffice to say, for a someone who’s already killed about 200 people in cold blood onscreen in the last two hours, this isn’t character development so much as an embarrassing afterthought.
They’ve also turned Wick into an actual superhero without bothering to provide any real supernatural explanation for his abilities. Bullets don’t just bounce off kevlar suits without the force of impact leaving bruises, and how is he able to routinely fall three stories onto pavement and get up and keep moving with barely even a grimace? Reeves’ firearms training and commitment to the physicality of the role are incredibly impressive — it’s certainly entertaining to watch him put on a Center Axis Relock clinic and fluidly and swiftly go about Wick’s deadly business. But when a character is repeatedly established to be invincible, viewers aren’t exactly left in suspense worried about whether Wick will live to fight another day.
Visually the film is all over the place. The film is well-lit, even if bathing every otherwise dark scene in neon blues and reds is anything but subtle — it looks like a comically over-the-top version of Michael Mann’s “driving around L.A. or Miami at night” aesthetic. The digital photography is so crisp and defined on an IMAX screen that close-ups look hyperreal in a way that’s distracting. The fight scenes, by contrast, are larded up with so much CGI it’s impossible to ignore the artificiality of everything from the flames of shotgun shells that light people on fire to the way the aforementioned German Shepherd leaps around a violent melee in ways no real dog can. The backdrop of the climactic scene — the Sacré-Cœur at sunrise — looks like such a fake and stylized version of the famed Paris landmark it’s almost distracting for viewers lucky enough to have seen the place in person.
The question, however, remains that in the year of our Lord 2023, does it even matter if a film looks artificial or the characters lack humanity? Indeed, the entire point of the John Wick franchise might well be to bulldoze past these objections to pioneer an entirely stylized type of entertainment that does indeed have more in common with video games than a tradition of cinema that borrows notions of story and character from literature.
In fact, it seems plenty of people are OK with this. “John Wick 4” has a staggeringly high rating of 4.2 out of five on Letterboxd. My outdated and curmudgeonly objections may be duly noted, but the fact is I could have leveled many of these same exact criticisms at “John Wick 3,” and yet, there I was in the theater on opening weekend for “John Wick 4.” I would be lying if I did not say that my big-picture objections to the movie weren’t at least temporarily overcome throughout the film with moments of sheer inventiveness.
However, the end result is only so enthralling. If an armchair critic’s only frame of reference is the onanism of video games, they might well be under the impression that the shallow thrills of “John Wick 4” are better than the congress achieved when filmmakers successfully communicate to viewers something, anything important about the human condition. But for all the technical sorcery onscreen and the thousands of spectacular moments crammed into this film, I’m not sure there’s a single thrill here that is more emotional than visceral. In that respect, the biggest achievement of “John Wick 4” might well be that it’s the movie that finally and definitively fools the masses into believing entertainment can be entirely divorced from art.
Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected after publication.