In the world of business, some folks would kill to have a seat at the table.
John Wick just wants to kill the Table.
Not the table itself, mind you. The High Table—if there is a physical thing—is probably just a very nice piece of nonsentient furniture. Mahogany, I’m guessing. But what it represents—and the people who sit around it—have been plaguing John Wick for four movies now.
This ludicrously formal crime syndicate once employed John as perhaps its most-lethal assassin, then let him go, then drew him back in after someone made the mistake of killing his dog. Now, the only way the rogue assassin can get the Table off his back is by murdering his way out.
Not so fast, John Wick! The 12 members of the Table say, admiring the literal table’s shiny mahogany finish. We do the murdering around here! They’ve spent millions of dollars and almost as many henchmen in their drive to extinguish Mr. Wick and put an end to these sequels. But alas, to no avail.
Now, the Table has turned the organization’s reins over to an ambitious, slightly crazy CEO called the Marquis, and he’s decided to burnish his own ambitions by really, truly and finally killing the wayward assassin, John. That means bringing another assassin out of retirement. That killer, Caine, is both blind and an old friend of John’s. But Caine doesn’t need to see to kill. And given that he’s trying to protect his daughter, he doesn’t need another reason to kill John.
Meanwhile, John is beginning to understand that murdering loads of people just doesn’t seem to be getting him where he’d like to get in this world. The only way to free himself from the High Table, he’s told (repeatedly) is death. Death!
Or he could get back into the syndicate, get chummy with a member of the High Table and then challenge the Marquis to a duel.
But trust me, death is way easier.
There’s more to talk about in this section than you’d expect in a superficial, splattery, R-rated actioner.
First, let’s talk about John. Yes, he’s super-good at killing people, in part because he gets a lot of practice. But he is also a documented dog lover. He even saves a pooch from certain death in the movie, earning a measure of respect and kindness from the dog’s owner.
John would also like to be remembered not just as a ruthless killer, but also as a loving husband. (His wife died from illness in the first film.) In fact, John tells his friend Winston that he’d like something to that effect carved on his tombstone one day: “John Wick, Loving Husband.” It’s so important to him, in fact, that he strings six or seven words together to make his feelings known—quite a feat for the notoriously taciturn assassin.
As noted, Caine is not particularly interested in killing John. He agrees to do so only to safeguard his daughter, whom it seems he only knows from afar. While one cannot excuse murder, we can at least acknowledge that Caine’s familial priorities are nice to see.
Finally, John and his lethal associates share a great deal of friendly affection for each other. One of John’s pals is willing to risk everything to help John out of a tight spot. Friendship when it’s convenient isn’t really friendship, he essentially tells John. People risk their lives for John, and John does the same for some of them.
The John Wick movies have always come draped in plenty of religious trappings (if not much actual faith).
John is referred to repeatedly as being “excommunicado” (as are others). Similar to those excommunicated from the Christian Church, he’s cast out from the Table and, thus, hunted like a heretic. Continental hotels (sort of an underworld chain) serve as sort of sacred spaces for the organization—“consecrated” places where no killing is allowed and members of the underworld are considered safe. Of course, the High Table can revoke that special status and instantly “de-consecrate” the hotels, especially if one is found to be harboring someone who’s excommunicado. And that leaves them open for all manner of carnage.
To get back in with the High Table, John Wick goes into an Eastern Orthodox Church—and is promptly attacked by a priest with a shotgun. The scene that follows finds John surrounded by underworld thugs along with a few cross-wearing clerics. A climactic scene takes place outside the famous Sacré-Cœur in Paris. We hear some discussion on where a character might wind up in the afterlife.
We do see one scene of what appears to be a genuine reflection of spirituality. John Wick goes to a church on the eve of a big battle, lighting a candle in memory of his deceased wife. Caine sits beside him and they discuss their own beliefs in the afterlife: Caine insists the dead are gone and gone forever. John tends to agree—but wants to hedge his bets.
John Wick: Chapter 4 doesn’t allow time for romance. But we do see some men and women writhe and dance sultrily in what looks to be a massive German rave. Elsewhere, a couple of women dress a bit provocatively.
A museum prominently features two famous paintings by the famous French painter Eugene Delacroix—both of which come with a tang of symbolism and a bit of skin. In one, The Death of Sardanapalus, the titular king lounges on his bed while the naked women of his harem are killed. (We see classically painted bare breasts and buttocks.) In the other, Liberty Leading the People, a bare-breasted manifestation of Liberty holds a French flag as combatants follow her over a pile of bodies.
Obviously, both paintings mentioned above include quite violent content as subject matter. If only John Wick: Chapter 4 had sequestered its violence to oil and canvas.
The reason this movie—and the John Wick franchise as a whole—exists at all is to glory in unbelievable and unremitting violence. While the frenetic fight scenes actually aren’t wildly bloody or gory, the body count likely soars into the hundreds. And while we can’t obviously detail each and every fatality, we can tell you that people die via gunshot wounds, hatchet blows to the head, sword slashes to the throat, cars and trucks running into them and occasionally being mauled by dogs. Several people are essentially blown up: They’re shot with what appears to be explosive ammunition and set on fire, and we see their flaming corpses (and sometimes their still moving bodies) in the aftermath.
Someone gets shot at nearly point-blank range; blood stains his white shirt and eventually pools around the body. Another man is shot in the head and killed. Someone falls to his death: We see his head strike the pavement below, sickeningly snapping the neck. (Some of the man’s teeth are removed from the corpse, thanks to a couple of well-aimed blows to the face.) And countless people fall prey to bullets of various stripes
Nonlethal wounds can be even more disturbing, in a way. Two people essentially brand their forearms with a red-hot seal. A man tumbles down scores—perhaps hundreds—of concrete stairs before finally coming to a rest. In perhaps the movie’s most grotesque scene, a man slams a knife into another man’s hand: It’s a test, apparently, and the victim must pull his hand free (not pull the knife out) to free himself. An attack dog has been trained to bite various parts of the body, from the neck to the arm to the groin. We see the pooch perform all of these directives enthusiastically. Two men shoot each other several times, but neither dies outright from the wounds. A character is shot in the rear.
John shoots a trio of riders off their horses as the four of them ride through the desert, then kills another man who, for some reason, is lounging about in the middle of this wilderness. People fall from various heights, often making it through relatively unscathed. Several people bear evidence of recent fights, and both John and Caine carry their own scars from their time serving the High Table. (John, and others, are missing fingers, while Caine’s eyes indicate that he was blinded on purpose.) A playing card does some serious damage to someone’s neck.
A duel takes place according to the High Table’s exacting rules of engagement. Not only does the user have to die (even if he survives the outcome of the duel itself), the life of the duelist’s “second” is also forfeit. A building blows up.
We hear five f-words and two s-words. We also hear “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n” and “h—”.
Characters and extras drink wine, beer and whiskey. Someone smokes and snuffs out the butt on the pavement.
Four characters literally play for someone’s life in a game of poker. Someone lies and schemes.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is as much a very passive video game as it is a very active movie. It contains all the beats of a classic button-masher: Waves and waves of anonymous assailants; big boss battles to put the exclamation point on each level; action sometimes interspersed with cut scenes that, y’know, actually tell you what’s going on. If the player cares, that is.
The film does have a storyline that adds at least superficial interest. Driven by Keanu Reeves’ taciturn anticharisma (He says about 20 different words and uses approximately one expression during the entire movie), John Wick: Chapter 4 offers a compelling world, likeable characters and some unexpectedly poignant moments. And, in truth, the combat sequences we see can be pretty spectacular. One battle takes us into an almost dollhouse view of the action, as we watch John battle bevies of bad ’uns through a series of rooms from above. Clever.
But those choreographed action sequences emphasize that, without those scenes of violence—where countless people die in sometimes horrific ways—John Wick would not exist. The franchise—arguably like the character itself—lives to kill. It glories in violence, revels in savagery. John Wick: Chapter 4 may raise barbarity to art, butchery to spectacle. But let us never forget that to be entertained by death—even fabricated death—should give us pause.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.