Last month, despite feeling pretty exhausted by the whole Chad Stahelski/David Leitch/Derek Kolstad creative axis that was launched into prominence by the unexpected success of the original “John Wick” (still the best of the whole lot), I let myself get carried away by the incredibly positive buzz for “John Wick: Chapter 4.” Fool me once, shame on you; fool me with three sequels and a bunch of ancillary projects all with more or less the same idea? Well, shame on me.
The original “John Wick,” released nine years(!) ago, was a thunderclap of action innovation sporting an eloquently appealing premise: a fearsome hitman comes out of retirement to avenge the killing of his dog, and heads roll. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it combined just enough brains, a heavy helping of next-level fight choreography, and a smattering of lore, to create an extremely entertaining assasins’ lair of a world, at least for one movie.
Then, over the course of two subsequent installments, director Chad Stahelski stretched that original premise ever thinner and thinner while simultaneously larding it with an ever-increasing mythology of dubious quality. Wick’s world got more and more complicated and its rules became more and more self-justifying, as the actors spent seemingly all of their screen time reciting their world’s obscure, corny bylaws back and forth to one another. By the end of the third installment, John Wick’s initial motivation was all but lost completely, subsumed by a ridiculously ornate universe of bizarre made-up customs. There was plenty of crazy action too, of course; as a stuntman by training, that is the major constant of Stahelksi’s direction. But the action had become essentially meaningless and frankly boring.
I’m not sure why I was so willing to believe that “Chapter 4” would be able to buck that trend, but it doesn’t. That’s largely because Stahelski’s ability to generate new ideas is apparently quite limited. Here is more or less a complete inventory of everything he’s capable of dreaming up: pubescently elaborate protocols and ceremonies; cheesy nightclubs brimming with bacchanalia; physically underpowered Euro-boys as primary antagonists; retro functionaries administering a sprawling bureaucracy of killers; and doggie companions as proxies for “good” guys. These were all in the first three “Wick” movies and they show up in number four too, with only minimal revision. Even the action, which should be Stahelski’s strong suit, is largely repetitive; for long stretches, I felt like I was watching outtakes of the first three movies. That is, at least until the third act, where Stahelski finds a second wind and delivers a series of genuinely inventive action set pieces. By that time though, there’s a roboticism to his entire approach that’s evocative of video games more than cinema, and the whole things feels like it was incredibly unnecessary.
Most sequels are in fact unnecessary, of course, but I think what kept me coming back to the “John Wick” franchise over and over again was a drug-like yearning for the extreme high of that first outing. In many ways, action moviemaking is still living in the shadow of that movie, and many filmmakers are still even trying to catch up to it. But for me, after a decade of “Wick” derivatives, it feels like we’re ready for something genuinely new. I don’t know what it looks like or where it might come from, but neither could I have guessed in 2014 that a low-budget B-movie starring Keanu Reeves and directed by two stuntmen could rejuvenate the form so wholly. I’m ready to be surprised again, though!
Happy tax day, everyone! Here’s the full list of all twenty movies I watched in March:
“Lost Bullet 2” (2022) ★★★½ Rewatched. Sustained excellence in a sequel.
“The Sword of Doom” (1966) ★★★½ Incredibly dark tale of multiple intersecting lives all marred by their connection to an irretrievably fatalistic samurai.
“Party Girl” (1995) ★★½ Hard nineties: Parker Posey bouncing around Manhattan in crazy outfits, teetering out of control, and somehow learning the library sciences at the same time? Ridiculous but very, very likable.
“Matinee” (1993) ★★★ An endearing nostalgia trip into the lost world of 1950s B-movies, more sentimental than it is remarkable, though it starts to realize its full potential in a manic third act.
“Police Story 3: Super Cop” (1992) ★★½ The only explanation is that everyone—EVERYONE—in the “Police Story” universe is on crack.
“The Heroic Trio” (1993) ★★★½ A crazy, liminal dream world at the intersection of myth and modernity, from one of the masters of Hong Kong action film. Incomprehensible but brilliant.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” (2023) ★★½ Everyone thought this was great except for me! The third act is impressive, but everything else feels like we’ve done this three times before already—oh, we have.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched in February, January, in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.