An action extravaganza delivering unforgettable set pieces while adding more layers to its damaged protagonist, director Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick: Chapter 4” is a masterclass in balletic bloodletting that rivals the likes of “The Raid: Redemption.”

Continuing the story from 2018’s “Parabellum,” “Chapter 4” sees our titular gun-fu master recovering after being “rescued” by the charismatic and street-smart Winston (Ian McShane), one of his comrades and manager of the iconic New York Continental hotel (a safe harbor for assassins, so long as they stay in line): that is, being shot in his bullet-proof suit by Winston, falling off a building, and tumbling to the ground with only an awning to lessen the impact. That’s life in the Wick universe, and believe me, there’s plenty more falls to be taken this go around. 

With the help of The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, relishing his over-the-top dialogue), an underground crime boss and ally, John sets his sights on the all-powerful “High Table” — an international network of contract killers and pompous overlords dressing up savagery in finely tailored suits. They’re governed by strict rules based around golden coins, blood oaths, and age-old traditions — ignored by traditional authorities and the general populace, possessing connections so deep that anyone could be a contract killer. Indeed, this “impossible task” is John’s most challenging yet.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick, a.k.a The Baba Yaga. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

After John executes a key figure of the High Table, they enlist the help of the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) — a ruthless, egotistical yet insecure enforcer with a questionable French accent. He brings Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind assassin and former friend of John, reluctantly out of retirement to kill the titular ass-kicker once and for all, or else risk his daughter’s death. A haughty tracker named Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson), accompanied by a trusty German Shepherd, is also on the prowl, waiting until the bounty on John’s head is high enough, creating further wrinkles for John and the Marquis to iron out. Osaka Continental manager and master swordsman Shimazu Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada), his equally capable daughter Akira (Rina Sawayama), and the aptly named Killa (Scott Adkins), a darkly funny crime boss with golden front teeth, join the party in limited but memorable appearances — as does Lance Reddick as the concierge Charon, whose presence is felt deeply throughout. Reddick passed away earlier this month.

“Chapter 4” zeroes in on the fact that John leaves a path of destruction in his wake wherever he goes, as he begins to question whether the killing will ever cease, and if he’s doomed to forever exist in its shadow. His last-ditch push for liberation has progressed beyond mere revenge for a slain canine, becoming an all-out fight against his seemingly inescapable past — a battle that, in spite of his perseverance, stubborn unwillingness to give in, and sheer force of will, destroys more than it saves. 

Notwithstanding this decidedly darker tone than previous installments, however, it’s also just a hell of a lot of fun — nearly three hours of practically unbelievable stunt work, heavily stylized worldbuilding, and cinematic bliss. Some story quibbles aside, every element comes together to solidify “Chapter 4” as not only the best of the series, but one of the genre’s greatest in recent memory.

And oh, what marvelous carnage it is. Even more so than previous “Wick” films, Stahelski consistently ups the ante from sequence to sequence — expertly pacing the mayhem so as to not overwhelm viewers and presenting new variables for John to navigate. As John shoots, stabs, kicks, punches, slices, runs over, and nun-chucks his geared-up opponents, Dan Lausten’s smooth, energetic cinematography follows the performers with precision, unafraid to creatively shake things up to jaw-dropping effect. Traveling to such locales as Osaka, Berlin, and Paris (the setting for a three-act, against-the-clock extravaganza of top-shelf badassery and mythic symbolism), “Chapter 4” never overstays its welcome. 

John prepares to pummel a poor, unsuspecting goon. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Scenes are bathed in vivid, neon hues: enhancing the lavish backdrops with evocative lighting that dances throughout each frame to complement combat so thrilling, and often laugh-out-loud funny (Caine has some hilarious tricks up his sleeve), that it’s an art form itself. Add to that a head-banging soundtrack from Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard blending familiar themes with violently rhythmic bass, along with pitch-perfect needle drops, and “Chapter 4” is a stylistic treat.

Despite the extended runtime, “Chapter 4” gives viewers space to breathe, occasionally pumping the brakes to establish more pathos than other films in the series. The first hour or so, for example, largely turns the camera away from John himself — focusing on how the fallout from his vengeful actions have consequences for his friends and those unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Caine, too, is facing a moral crossroads — brought back into the fold to protect the person he cares about most, mirroring the struggle John faced with his deceased wife, Helen, brought authentically to life by Yen’s multifaceted performance. All of this combines to make “Chapter 4” a much more melancholic watch than expected — packing all the cheer-worthy mayhem viewers want and expect, while giving everything more weight, and, crucially, tangible stakes. 

Reeves continues to dominate the role, though speaking less than in previous entries (which says a lot). It’s clear the acrobatics aren’t so easy for the aging actor to pull off anymore, but in a sense, this lends each punch thrown and received additional impact. Previous films have shown John getting beat up and persisting to come out on top, and “Chapter 4” is no exception — we see his increasing frustration and self-destructiveness as he determinedly demolishes his adversaries, perpetually gearing up for the next onslaught. There’s still plenty of cheesiness in his interactions, thankfully, which brings levity to even the plot’s grimmest stretches.

Alas, “Chapter 4” has some drawbacks. Shay Hatten and Michael Finch’s screenplay crackles with dark humor and is tastefully self-referential, not overloading on quips like a Marvel production. But a bit more subtlety could have benefited “Chapter 4,” particularly in how a certain big twist is telegraphed early on, and is repetitively force-fed to us until the end. An after-credits scene is similarly unnecessary, lessening the impact of narrative decisions made earlier.

This is still an incredible watch — essential for admirers of masterful filmmaking. Amid all the bone-crushing ultraviolence, “Chapter 4” has heart and soul, giving this iconic character another action spectacular for the ages.

Courtesy of Lionsgate.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is a 2023 action film directed by Chad Stahelski and starring Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Shamier Anderson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rina Sawayama, and Scott Adkins. It is rated R for pervasive strong violence and some language. The runtime is 2 hours, 49 minutes. It opened in theaters March 24. Alex’s Grade: A-

By Alex McPherson

With shallow characterization and underwhelming action sequences, George Gallo’s new film, “Vanquish,” winds up being decidedly average.

This generic thriller stars Ruby Rose as Vicky, a former courier for Russian drug dealers, who’s become a caretaker for Damon (Morgan Freeman), a retired police commissioner in cahoots with crooked cops. When the operation Damon’s team is working on is nearly jeopardized, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Vicky can’t afford to pay medical bills for her young daughter, so Damon offers funds in exchange for her embarking on a dangerous task — completing five money pickups from criminals around town. When Vicky refuses, Damon takes Lily hostage and won’t release her until the job is completed. Vicky must utilize her particular set of skills to survive the night and rescue her child.

With a style reminiscent of the “John Wick” franchise, Gallo’s film neglects to make the most of its lead actors and only provides sporadic moments of enjoyment throughout.

Even with low expectations going in, I hoped “Vanquish” would provide a campy, suspenseful experience that didn’t take itself too seriously. Unfortunately, for such a simple premise, the film seems unfocused. In too often switching attention from Vicky to the larger drug-smuggling operations behind the scenes, the pacing suffers, and the film abandons its strengths in favor of bland storytelling with predictable outcomes.

There are faint glimmers of intrigue here and there, however, particularly involving the visuals. Employing thick contrast and color grading in practically every shot, “Vanquish” aims for the appearance of a comic book and is often striking to behold, if sometimes overbearingly so. One scene early on, for example, is bathed in green hues and features a camera angle from the perspective of a scurrying rat — an oddball decision, to say the least. More often than not, though, this threatening atmosphere is undone by hyperactive editing that muddles the intensity. The camera rarely slows down, constantly cutting between shots without precision or purpose. I see what Gallo was attempting in trying to create a hazy, sensory feel at certain points, but “Vanquish” needed a more restrained approach overall. 

This surface-level quality extends to Vicky herself.  Her backstory is relegated to clunky exposition dumps and rushed flashbacks that lack emotional impact. Rose does a passable job with dialogue that chugs along without nuance. We’re not given many opportunities to spend time with her outside of her immediate objectives — rather, we spend a lot of time with Damon and the slimy cops he manages. Portrayed with uneven acting, the officers come across as infinitely less interesting than Vicky. 

The film’s video-game-esque skirmishes aren’t especially memorable, despite some impressive gore effects. Except for one moment of cocaine-induced gun fu and a slick motorcycle stunt, they fail to stand out — they’re sometimes downright difficult to follow due to the aforementioned editing. 

Side characters don’t fare much better. Damon has an engaging history, but “Vanquish” sends him down a familiar arc as events unfold. Confined to a wheelchair for the entire duration, Freeman doesn’t deliver Damon’s lines with much emotion. Admittedly, this creates some amusing moments of deadpan humor, but Gallo misses an opportunity to give Damon a soul beneath his shady actions — Freeman’s presence is where the primary entertainment comes from. Cynical, calculating, and emotionally distanced from the carnage happening around him, Damon is an over-the-top character that deserves a more over-the-top depiction. 

Failing to embrace its B-movie potential, “Vanquish” isn’t the worst option for an action film, but viewers could certainly do better elsewhere. 

“Vanquish” is a 2021 action crime thriller directed by George Gallo and starring Morgan Freeman and Ruby Rose. It is rated R for bloody violence, language, some sexual material and drug use, and run time is 1 hour, 36 minutes. It opens in theatres April 16. Alex’s Rating: C