John Wick 4 proves the series doesn't need Keanu Reeves to thrive
It all started with a dog and a pencil. From humble beginnings, the John Wick series morphed into an adrenaline-fueled globetrotting epic that broke new ground for action cinema and has given the career of Keanu Reeves a welcome latter-day revival.
But where do you go after John Wick 4? No spoilers here, but Reeves, director Chad Stahelski, and an all-star team of stuntmen and creatives left it all on the (high) table. While it admittedly might be hard to top Wick’s labored ascent up the 222 steps to Sacre-Coeur or his Hotline Miami-style onslaught, the fourth entry was quietly working away at something – to use a word from Reeves' wholesome E3 appearance – even more breathtaking: by fleshing out a richer world, it has given the titular hitman a chance to get off the board and allow the wider franchise to flourish.
You don't even have to look very far for its first real candidate. Akira (Rina Sawayama, in a remarkably assured on-screen debut) is the blueprint for a world beyond John Wick. Not only do her Osaka-set scenes hint at more of the Continental lore that has only really been spoken about in hushed whispers up until now, she carries herself with the sort of confidence that actively demands a follow-up.
Truth be told, John Wick 4 is full of such examples. Shamier Anderson's Mr. Nobody, as the mysterious name would suggest, is ripe for mining. So, too, is Clancy Brown's formidable Harbinger. Others such as the scene-stealing, card-dealing Killa and the Marquis's seemingly unkillable henchman Chidi could each stake a claim for their own movie or miniseries, such was the level of depth they presented with limited screen time. It's rare to have a movie as stacked at this, it's even rarer for them to all feel like they've turned up in John Wick 4 as if they've floated in from their own movie trilogies. The foundations have been laid; they just need to build on it from here.
It may be sacrilege to say so, but the movie's strongest act – its first, where Wick is largely absent and the likes of Ian McShane, Bill Skarsgård, and Hiroyuki Sanada hold our attention – acts as a proof of concept for no longer requiring Reeves' services. After all, there's a reason why they cut John Wick's dialogue down to roughly 400 words (according to The Wall Street Journal's number-crunchers). He does the shooting, everyone else does the talking. As a result, everyone else suddenly feels like a bigger deal and, consequently, the series moved from the thinly-sketched caricatures and stereotypes of past installments to a wonderfully colorful cast from the top of the call sheet down to the most minor of henchmen. That even extends to the series' mythology.
Ah yes, the lore. It was always the most uninteresting part of John Wick, previously used as a means to an end for John Wick to shoot some very nasty people in their very smug faces. It was also something that held back its sequels, in particular John Wick 3, with knotty talk of High Tables, markers, and Elders.
It may still be a little undercooked, but John Wick 4 manages to streamline the High Table, do away with the convoluted story additives, and just set about creating a world where very dangerous assassins lurk around every corner – while all feature the same connective tissue. It's simple, smart storytelling that ties everything together without (further) stretching believability, bulletproof three-piece suits notwithstanding.
Into the Wick-verse
Of course, anything that takes place in the John Wick-verse (snappier cinematic universe name TBA) will miss the intangible charisma that Reeves brings to proceedings. It's why Lionsgate are seemingly feeling a little skittish about the Ana de Armas-led Ballerina spin-off and are bringing Reeves back for an "extended cameo." But they really needn't worry.
John Wick 4 has taken what was a pretty straightforward action series and brought it to its likely endgame. In modern-day cinematic parlance, that's now the end of Phase One. You can't really hope to top what Keanu and his motley crew of assassins achieved here. Next up is the widening of the world.
The aforementioned Ballerina is set to be joined by The Continental, a miniseries that dives deep into the past of Ian McShane's Winston and the series' odd collection of hitman-filled hotels. From there, the world is their bullet-strewn oyster. The fourquel has opened up doors from Osaka to Berlin. Anything could be next: character-driven dramas, an excuse to blow a small country’s GDP on explosions, or something else entirely.
John Wick 4 leaves the franchise in a place that were it to ever need to smash the Baba Yaga glass in case of emergency, Keanu will surely jump back on the saddle. But he's left it in safe hands. John Wick, once a straight-shooter, is now more malleable than ever. Not bad for a revenge mission over a dead dog.
John Wick 4 is now in cinemas. For more, check out the best Keanu Reeves movies of all time as well as our complete guide to movie release dates.