The John Wick franchise comes to an end with “John Wick: Chapter 4,” in theaters Friday, and what an absolutely insane, extremely violent finale it is. Keanu Reeves is back as Wick, and director Chad Stahelski, who helmed all four installments, puts his star through the action movie wringer. Each installment saw an increase in runtime, and “Chapter 4″ clocks in at a massive 169 minutes. Not one second of it is wasted; this is wall-to-wall carnage of the finest, most entertaining order.
Viewers coming in on this installment will be lost, so let me give a CliffsNotes-style explanation of the series. In the 2014 original, John Wick is a retired hit man whose wife, Helen (played in flashbacks throughout the series by Bridget Moynahan) dies after a long illness. After her death, a puppy she arranged to have delivered to keep her grieving husband company arrives at their house. A break-in ends with Wick’s car stolen and his puppy killed.
That senseless murder makes Wick very angry. He unretires and goes after the men who did it, some of whom have ties to a big shot in the hit man world. I should mention that, in the John Wick universe (JWU), there’s a code of honor among thieves, or rather, killers. The assassin business is controlled by a group called The High Table and run out of a chain of hotels called The Continental. In all four films, the New York City Continental is run by Winston (Ian McShane), and his concierge, Charon (Lance Reddick).
There’s also a doctor (Randall Duk Kim) on hand to fix Wick’s numerous injuries and a long line of famous actors as heroes and villains. Halle Berry, Anjelica Huston, and Willem Dafoe have all been memorable in various installments. Recurring character the Bowery King, so named for his rule over that NYC neighborhood, is played with much humor by Reeves’s “The Matrix” mentor, Laurence Fishburne. As a reward for his longevity, “Chapter 4″ allows Fishburne to re-create the famous jump cut in that other Larry’s movie, “Lawrence of Arabia.”
One of the biggest rules in the JWU is that “business” cannot be conducted within The Continental. That is, no killing. But rules are made to be broken, and in “Chapter 2,” John Wick’s violation of that rule gets him deemed “excommunicado,” which is the equivalent of losing one’s protective status. No more doctor’s visits or free weapons for Wick, plus anybody can kill him.
At the end of “Chapter 3,” Wick was shot multiple times before falling off the roof of a four-story building. Of course, this development makes him quite vengeful. “Chapter 4″ continues this story line, taking us to Berlin, Paris, Osaka, and the Middle East along the way.
Got all that?
Wick’s current quest for revenge has cost his allies their status. As “Chapter 4″ opens, the Bowery King has been kicked out of his neighborhood and Winston has been deemed excommunicado by a snide, villainous higher-up called the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård). These early scenes allow for a poignant send-off for Reddick, who recently died at age 60. As violent as the “John Wick” series is, it’s never been afraid of brief interludes of emotional connection or sentiment, and Reddick and McShane take their big moment seriously.
Meanwhile, Wick is out to take down all the members of The High Table. The group retaliates by putting an ever-escalating bounty on Wick’s head. “Chapter 4″ introduces a new set of antagonists, including action-movie legend Donnie Yen as Caine, a Zatoichi-style blind assassin, and Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson), a tracker who has a dog that assists him in killing. This particular canine likes going for the genitals of very unlucky hit men.
Reeves’s excellent performance as Wick melds his stoic, laidback attitude with his formidable action skills. Stahelski was once Reeves’s stunt double, and his exhilarating focus on stunt performers, not to mention his desire to go bigger than the last installment’s action scenes, make this series compulsively watchable. Some of the set pieces have a slapstick quality to them that’s delightful.
Like its predecessors, “John Wick: Chapter 4″ has an infinite supply of weapons and a high body count that, here, approaches infinity. Wick kills more men than Cecil B. DeMille, to quote “Blazing Saddles.” Much of the carnage is cartoonish, with hero and villain alike suffering catastrophic injuries that would kill most mortals. What’s refreshing is how anyone can be an action star in these movies; women, people of color, and folks of all shapes, sizes, and abilities, get to kick butt and die horribly.
These movies are the 21st century’s take on westerns. There’s a simple delineation between good and evil, the characters are broadly, yet effectively drawn — hell, this film even has a duel at sunrise that’s gorgeously shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen. If a John Ford movie had a baby with a John Woo movie, we’d get “John Wick.”
Any movie that begins with a jump cut from “Lawrence of Arabia” and climaxes with an all-out homage to Walter Hill’s 1979 version of a western, “The Warriors” (complete with taunting DJ and distinctive neighborhood goons), is going to win me over. “John Wick: Chapter 4″ lets its titular hero go out with a bang. It’s a wicked good time at the movies.
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4
Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch. Starring Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick, Donnie Yen, Shamier Anderson, Bill Skarsgård. 169 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, and suburbs. R (violent is the word for Keanu)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.