Review by Daniel Blackaby March 24, 2023
John Wick: Chapter 4 (Christian Movie Review)
Verdict: An unrelenting barrage of complex action choreography and brutal violence; it offers plenty of well-orchestrated thrills but may leave audiences weary of its nihilistic worldview and desensitizing carnage.
About The Movie
Early in the film, when someone questions the ruthlessly ambitious Marquis (played by Bill Skarsgárd) whether there was any point to the bloodbath of film’s first major action scene, he coldly responds, “The bloodbath was the point.” The same mentality might be said of John Wick: Chapter 4 as a film. The fourth entry into the popular Keanu Reeves-led action series is a bombastic, high-octane, unrelenting barrage of complex action choreography and brutal violence. It’s a film that wholeheartedly embraces style over substance. It has one note to play— death—and goes to great lengths to add stylistic flourish to that singular note in order to keep audiences entertained throughout its surprisingly long runtime. Whether it succeeds or not likely depends on your expectations and tolerance for dramatized death and bloodshed.
With a paper-thin plot, and a lead character who may kill more henchmen with nunchucks than he speaks words of dialogue in the entire movie, perhaps the best place to begin is with the action. After all, as a film that orbits almost entirely around this one element, it bears the bulk of the burden for the film’s success or failure. Personal tastes will differ, but I found the action in John Wick: Chapter 4 to be a mixed bag.
At times, it is indeed spectacular. Much of the action choreography and camera work, filmed with impressively long and unbroken takes, is phenomenal on a technical level. In one extended action set piece, Wick finds himself in house assaulted by endless waves of enemies, as the camera captures the action from a top-down perspective through an imaginary roof. As the combat unfolds, the camera sweeps across the house as characters scurry between rooms or shoot through walls. It’s an incredible showcase in filmmaking, and truly one of the most superb action set pieces I’ve ever seen put to camera. Another standout happens outside the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, as characters fight while weaving between moving cars, or jumping in and out of vehicles. Again, it’s exhilarating scene and a technical marvel.
Nevertheless, there’s only so much death-as-spectacle that can be put on display before I too started questioning the point of the bloodbath. The film opens with a shot of Wicks fists repeatedly punching a wood plank with reverberating boom. That wood plank represents how I felt at times during John Wick: Chapter 4. As the body count begins to reach numbers that require a scientific calculator and complex algebraic formulas, there is a process of desensitization, not just of the death, but of the spectacle of death. While many action scenes are initially exciting, all overstay their welcome and drag on too long, to the point that I groaned when more goons inevitably showed up to what felt like a finished battle. The film becomes almost painfully repetitive. There are only so many times you can watch Keanu Reeves martial arts a bad guy to the ground and then shoot him in the head with a pistol before it begins to feel like a repetitive button-mashing video game. The original John Wick was a crisp 1:36 hours, whereas this latest entry clocks in at a mammoth 2:49 hours. That’s pushing Avatar levels of grandiose storytelling, only instead of character development and lavish world-building, it offers only unrelenting death and violence.
While the action is always at the forefront, the brief interludes of actual character development and interactions are often the more engaging elements. John Wick’s relationship with Caine (played by Donnie Yen) is a fascinating dynamic, representing one of few remaining friendships that either has in the world, who nevertheless find themselves destined to have to kill each other. Similarly, Shimazu (played by the always wonderful Hiroyuki Sanada) is a captivating character as perhaps the only participant in the violent underworld life who still clings to some flicker of the light. “Friendship when it’s convenient isn’t really friendship,” he says, as he strives to be more than merely a killer. These moments add some much-needed heart and emotional stakes into the movie that are often too few and far between.
In the end, John Wick 4 offers a nihilistic view of the world and of itself. Its characters seem to enjoy the act of killing, while also being aware of the utter meaninglessness of their lives. They all want a way out, but killing is all they know how to do, so they just keep on killing, entrenching themselves deeper and deeper into that purposeless existence. The same is true on a meta-level for the movie. It is certainly thrilling at times, with some objectively impressive filmmaking and spectacle, and yet there’s also a constant hollowness to it. It only has death to offer, so it just keeps offering more and more killing, searching for new and inventive ways to arrange the food on the plate in order to disguise the fact that it only has one meal to serve the audience.
On the Surface
Language: Probably 4-5 uses of the F-word, as well as a handful of other profanities (“sh—,” “d—”).
Violence: Okay, you might want to sit down for this one. There’s really no way go through all the specific moments of violence in a movie like this. There’s a lot. While the action is brutally violent, it is not necessarily overly bloody. There is blood, but rather than an eruption of gore splattering on the walls, it is typically a quick red spray, and then the action quickly moves elsewhere without lingering on the aftermath of the carnage (you don’t see a bunch of bloody holes in heads etc.). Still, countless characters get shot in the head, smashed with blunt weapons, have throats slit with a blade, or get hit in the head with an axe. A rifle with exploding ammo ignites the victims on fire. Even playing cards are used for violence to cut a throat. In one of the more difficult-to-watch scenes, a man has his hand pinned to a table with a knife and must remove his hand without removing the knife.
Sexuality: Nothing gratuitous. One action scene takes place in a venue where a rave is taking place. Some men dance with open shirts, while females wear tight-fitting and slighty skin-revealing outfits, although nothing overly sexualized. There is also a conversation that happens within a museum, where several large classic paintings are on display that depict female nudity and sexual violence.
Spirituality: The John Wick world is laced with religious elements (see more below). In one scene, Wick enters a church to pray and light a candle to honor his deceased wife. Another character asks if he believes she can hear him, and Wick says “no.” When asked why he still does it, he says, “Maybe I’m wrong.” In another scene, characters talk about heaven and hell.
Beneath The Surface
Engage The Film
Nihilism in a Godless World
In a confrontational dialogue, the Marquis taunts Wick that he will never truly find a way out of the wearisome life he’s fleeing from, because he’s merely a killer without purpose, and “life without purpose is nothing.” In many ways, John Wick 4 embodies the biblical writer of Ecclesiastes, when he declares, “Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless”’ (1:2). Characters are trapped in a violent and destructive world that seems to offer no way to escape it or to earn a way out.
In the John Wick world, there is seemingly only one gateway out, and that is death—either of others or of yourself. While the first path is clearly futile (“no one, not even you, can kill everyone”), the later does not appear any more promising. When one character muses, “A good death only comes after a good life,” John Wick responds “You and I left behind a good life a long time ago, friend.” Despite the emptiness of their lives, none of the characters appear overly eager to die. Instead, they cling to life and the fleeting hope of somehow earning for themselves redemption or a “good death,” and yet the longer they continue, the more blood they get on their hands, and more distant that hope appears.
The John Wick world is a godless world, but still an outwardly religious one. The underworld organizations use heavy religious terminology and inspiration—essentially operating as a religion—while also running some of their operations inside of old churches. But these churches are spiritually dead. They offer rituals and the illusion of transcendence, but no peace and certainly no God. When John Wick enters one orthodox church seeking aid, the priest promptly pulls out a shotgun and blasts him. The film is not necessarily mocking God or Christianity, as much as it merely cuts Him out of its lawless and violent world (or, perhaps, its lawless and violent world is because God has been cut out).
Near the end of the movie, two of the characters exchange a loosely adapted version of Jesus’ profound words in Matthew 16:25 about how those who try to save their life will lose it, while those who lose it, for His sake, will find it. It’s another interesting biblical parallel, but it rings tragically empty. These characters are not seeking to surrender their life to anything or anyone. There is no substance to their surrender. It is merely a desperate hope to escape from a meaningless world. At one point, as one character looks at a tombstone and questions whether the deceased is in heaven or hell, another shrugs and almost dismissively says, “Who’s to say?” In a story that seemingly offers death as the only escape from the misery of the world, it also implies that there isn’t really much hope to cling to in the next life either. The version of the world depicted by John Wick 4 is a stark contrast to what makes the Christian Gospel such “Good News.”