No one watches Keanu Reeves’ “John Wick” franchise films expecting artistic depth and thoughtful social commentary. Nevertheless, those components are actually in each movie, in a subtle way, as motivators for Reeves’ character.
But let’s face it, people don’t care about his sensitivity. They watch him play the soft-spoken assassin for non-stop action and eye-popping fight scenes.
When the first “John Wick” movie was released in 2014, Reeves had already made three films in the “Matrix” franchise but had both hits and misses in his filmography. At the time, and even more so now, Reeves was the biggest Asian American Pacific Islander movie star, with a Chinese, Hawaiian and European mixed-race heritage, and he’s played in some Asia-focused films such as the 2013 projects “Man of Tai Chi” and “47 Ronin.” He was terrific in a cameo as himself in the breakout 2019 Asian American rom-com “Always Be My Maybe.” But he was also cast as Siddhartha in the sadly overhyped 1993 historical drama “Little Buddha.”
Hollywood didn’t have big expectations for “John Wick,” an independent film with a budget under $30 million. The straightforward story was about a retired assassin who goes back into the biz to wreak revenge on the Russian mob he had quit because the mob leader’s son killed Wick’s puppy, a gift from his wife who had died from an illness.
The movie hit a pop culture nerve for its over-the-top, violent fight scenes, and the mysterious group of assassins that stay at a special hotel where they follow rules of protocol (no business conducted on the premises) and live by a collegial code.
“John Wick” became a cult classic and made $43 million in the U.S., doubling that take worldwide.
So of course, Reeves returned for a “Chapter 2” sequel, and then “John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum” and on March 24, he returned in “John Wick: Chapter 4.”
The fourth installment takes the “John Wick” formula to new and ever-more violent heights, but with some of the key characters from previous films still in the script: Winston, the manager of the Continental hotel, where the killers stay; Charon, the concierge for the Continental; Bowery King (played by Laurence Fishburne).
The new narrative also spends a big part of its plot in Osaka, Japan, announcing the setting with a lively shot of Dotonbori, the famous street-food haven with all the neon and colorful signs. Then the action moves to the Continental hotel in Osaka, where the action is unleashed.
During this part of the story, viewers meet Caine, an assassin friend of Wick played by martial arts action star Donnie Yen, and hotel manager Shimazu Koji, another longtime friend of John Wick, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who most recently starred as “The Elder” in the 2022 big-budget action flick “Bullet Train.”
The fighting during these scenes that take place in Japan are not surprisingly, showcases for Japanese martial arts and sword-fighting, with lots of dialogue spoken in Japanese, and cultural references to loyalty and deference to individuals’ status.
The culture of the assassin community and the “High Table,” the criminal organization that operates the Continental hotels and the global network of killers, has been part of the “John Wick” storyline throughout the films. Wick has been the subject of death sentences and survived all the attempts to kill him in the films. But by the end of the fourth film, the High Table has set such a high bounty for Wick that dozens of thugs come out of the woodwork to try to kill him. However, the final showdown belongs to Wick and his friend Caine.
Anyone who sees “4” has probably seen the earlier movies and loves both the concept and the action. This installment does not disappoint. There are so many fight scenes they may blur together, but watch for an insane car chase and shoot-‘em-up that circles the Eiffel Tower; the samurai-and-ninja vs. High Table soldiers battling at the Osaka Continental; a loud and flashy fight scene at a nightclub; Wick fighting dozens of killers climbing a long set of stairs to get to his climactic duel on time; and any fight scene featuring Donnie Yen, whose character is sight-impaired and relies on hearing to kill off opponents.
Another highlight is Reeves fighting with nunchaku — the sticks attached by a chain that are Okinawan, but most familiar from Bruce Lee movies — which will leave audiences both laughing and gasping.
By the end, audiences will be left breathless and wondering why so many people can be killed in New York, Tokyo and Paris without the authorities showing up. And, we’re also left wondering if there will be a fifth episode in the “John Wick” series. Reeves and director Chad Stahelski have been coy about whether there will be another installment in the storyline, but for now, the team is taking a breather from Wick.
It could happen, even if it takes a while — after all, Reeves took an 18-year break between the third “Matrix” film and 2021’s “Matrix Resurrections.”