When best-of-the-year clips packages are assembled at the end of 2023, the main question is going to be which of the astonishing sequences in "John Wick: Chapter 4" to include.
Is it the brutal-but-hilarious one that makes use of all 270 steps to the Sacre Coeur basilica in Paris? Is it the one that's shot from overhead while a bunch of guys stalk the rooms of a swank mansion, blasting flames at one another? Is it the shootout during a rave where the frenzied participants keep boogying around the corpses piling up on the dance floor? Is it the massacre whose participants stab one another while trying to avoid cars rocketing around the circular drive at the Arc de Triomphe?
"Chapter 4" is its own greatest hits, with one breathless, inventive action sequence after another. And it's not just that it's exciting. It also stands a good chance of being the most beautiful movie of 2023.
The locations are stunning to begin with, like a $60 coffee-table book called "The World's Most Beautiful Places to Eviscerate People." They include a nighttime serenity garden in Japan, with placid reflecting pools lit by red lanterns, the wing of the Louvre where "The Raft of the Medusa" hangs and a golden opera house that gleams under the glow of ornate chandeliers. But director Chad Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen amplify the beauty by situating it perfectly in "Chapter 4's" ultrawide frames.
It's a movie made for and by movie lovers, with references to "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "The Warriors." Even before we get to that rave, set to pulsating disco, "Chapter 4" feels like a musical that substitutes elaborately choreographed shootouts for production numbers. If you can get past the blood — and there is a lot of it, usually spurting from head wounds — there's beauty in the grace of the characters, every one of whom is an assassin hunting John Wick (Keanu Reeves).
Plot is not a huge consideration in the nearly three-hour-long movie. Occasionally, "Chapter 4" checks in on a weird futures-market trading room, where the bounty on Wick's head keeps going up, and there is attention paid to the rules of the High Table, which controls international crime. But it's mostly an excuse for escalating action set pieces.
In the early going, I worried. The first half-hour of "Chapter 4" wobbles in New York, but then it gets to Japan, Berlin and Paris, and the movie keeps getting better and better.
The action sequences always highlight "Wick" movies, but Reeves' impassive, seemingly indestructible killer has compelling characters around him this time, including Donnie Yen as a blind hipster on a mission and Bill Skarsgård as a petulant dandy with a psychotic need to see Wick suffer (he's like a Bond villain's younger, meaner brother).
Most of the dialogue in "Chapter 4" is variations on, "Kill them all!" (When a woman asks the taciturn Wick, "Are you armed?" the correct response would be, "Lady, everyone in this movie is packing heat.") Instead, it's about movement, energy and speed — and it is, by a very long shot, the most fun you can have in a movie theater right now.
'John Wick: Chapter 4'
***1/2 out of 4 stars
Rated: R for nonstop bloodshed and strong language.
Where: In theaters.