This piece was originally published in March. We are recirculating it now that John Wick: Chapter 4 is available to own digitally.
So is John Wick dead or what?
Yes. Well, probably. Maybe. We do, in fact, see Wick, seriously wounded and bleeding after his literal pistols-at-dawn duel with Donnie Yen’s blind assassin, Caine (not to mention an entire night of getting shot, punched, kicked, and run over by seemingly everyone in Paris), keel over, lifeless, on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur basilica. After that, we cut to New York, with Winston (Ian McShane) and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), along with John’s dog, standing over his grave, where he’s been buried next to his late wife, Helen. “Loving Husband,” the gravestone reads, just as John himself had requested earlier in the film. “I never thought I’d see the day,” the King says, before asking Winston if he thinks John is in Heaven or hell. “Who knows,” says Winston. The King chuckles to himself as he walks away. Winston stays behind, touches John’s grave, and mutters, “Farewell, my son,” in Russian. Then he too walks away, as the camera cranes up.
Of course, scenes of people standing over the graves of heroes who didn’t actually die is a common motif in modern action cinema, so we keep waiting for that inevitable reveal. And there’s a hint of it as we see the dog turning off-screen. What’s next? A shadow in the distance watching them? A telltale mop-top quietly moving into frame? The dirt on the grave levitating mysteriously? No. We see none of these things, and the credits finally start to roll.
Surely there’s an end-credits stinger showing us that John Wick is still alive? Maybe lunching with his new family in a café on the banks of the Arno, Bruce Wayne style? In fact, there is an end-credits scene, but it’s not what we expect. We see Caine, now re-retired and supposedly free of all his obligations as a hired assassin, walking to listen to his violin-virtuoso daughter as she plays in a crowded outdoor plaza. He holds a bouquet of flowers, which suggests that he will finally be able to let her know he’s there. But then a hooded figure approaches him. It’s Akira (Rina Sawayama), whose father Caine killed earlier in the film. Revenge in her eyes, she pulls a knife. Fade to black. No John Wick. But perhaps a set-up for a sequel or spinoff of some sort.
There are indeed spinoffs in the works for the John Wick franchise, including Ballerina, featuring Ana de Armas, and a prequel series showing the New York Continental Hotel’s early days. There’s no way Lionsgate is giving this property up, especially as it’s about to make a boatload of money. And director Chad Stahelski, while noting that he and Keanu Reeves are done with Wick for the moment, has said they might return. The truth is that there will be many more entries in the John Wick universe, and Reeves could easily come back as a flashback, or a Force Ghost of some kind, so his potential return doesn’t mean Wick would still be alive.
Wouldn’t it feel a little blah, however, for the John Wick movies to simply turn into another cinematic universe populated with a bunch of other random characters, given the extent to which these films have relied on Reeves’s unique cinematic persona? Do we really want John Wick to get Bourne Legacy-ed? As my colleague Angelica Jade Bastién says in her review, the film’s ending “feels like it’s fighting the gravitational force of Reeves rather than submitting to it … Its final moments can’t help but put into harsh relief the fact that this ridiculous world of glory and gut punches is evolving to exist without its namesake, yet it still needs him to feel alive.”
One suspects that the filmmakers are not entirely unaware of this, and it isn’t hard to see how John Wick could return as a flesh-and-blood character if Reeves and Stahelski (and, more importantly, the audience) wanted him to. After all, doesn’t the Bowery King’s chuckle there at the end suggest there’s something more going on? Remember, he was the one who rescued John Wick at the end of John Wick: Chapter 3, after our hero took what must be one of the most spectacular falls off a building in movie history and everyone thought he was dead. And what about the tattoo we glimpse on Winston’s hand at the very end? It’s the mark of the Ruska Roma, John’s clan. Do his words, “Farewell, my son” take on greater meaning? Could Winston be John Wick’s father? Even if he isn’t, that’s a hell of an idea to introduce right at the end, relating to a character who is presumably dead and gone forever. No, there’s clearly more to this story.
At the same time, John Wick: Chapter 4 had to end this way. Throughout this whole series, John Wick has been trying to gain his freedom from the High Table, the mysterious, all-powerful network of assassins to which he had once sworn undying fealty. A final duel fought according to the High Table’s ancient codes has, over the course of Chapter 4, been built up as the one thing that could liberate John for good. His opponent is technically the Marquis Vincent de Gramon (Bill Skarsgård), who has been given total power by the Table to destroy John (who was excommunicated in John Wick 2 because he killed someone in the supposed sanctuary of the Continental Hotel). The Marquis, utilizing another arcane rule, has nominated/sponsored Caine to fight in his place.
But Caine, who has been trying to kill John Wick throughout the film, also happens to be John’s friend. Both retired from the business to be with their families, and both have been pulled back — John because the dumbest Russian gangster princeling in human history killed his dog and stole his car in the first John Wick, Caine because he’s one of the few people in the world who can actually get to him. Both men need to win this duel, in other words, to gain back their freedom.
The way the duel unfolds seems to indicate that John and Caine have reached a prior understanding. The standoff (filmed like Barry Lyndon and scored like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, two movies with iconic duels) begins with each of them walking 30 paces; then, they’ll step ten paces closer each round if neither falls. Sure enough, that’s what happens. In the first salvo, each man gets the other in the arm. In the next salvo, at 20 paces apart, one is hit in the shoulder, another in the side. At ten paces, Caine fires before John and gets him in the side of the belly. John falls. The Marquis, seeing his chance, takes over from Caine: “As your sponsor, I claim the coup de grace.” The Marquis prepares to shoot John at virtually point-blank range, and mutters, “Rules.”
But wait — John Wick hasn’t fired his gun yet. (“You arrogant asshole,” Winston yells. “He didn’t shoot!”) John then points his gun, mutters “consequences” through his teeth, and puts a bullet in the Marquis’s head. John has played by the Table’s rules, the very rules he’s been accused of breaking for several films now, and prevailed. He’s beaten the villains at their own game.
So John has won his freedom, but he’s also seemingly mortally wounded. It takes him a while to get up, and he does so only to walk down a few steps and sit back down, looking out at Paris in the dawn light. He asks Winston to take him home. It feels, honestly, like the first time our hero has been able to draw a quiet breath in the entire series. As he sits there, bleeding, he recalls a long-ago happy moment with his wife, Helen. Is this John Wick being beckoned to the beyond? On the question of God and an afterlife, John has remained noncommittal in the past. In an earlier film, he said he wanted to keep on living in order to keep his wife’s memory alive. He’s been a death-adjacent figure since the very beginning, but he has never actually had a death wish.
One could argue that dying (or “dying”) was the only way John could win, so maybe this was all part of his plan. Even if the Table declared him free, the whole series has been proof that he wouldn’t still be targeted. In that light, the end-credits stinger showing Caine being hunted by Akira gains renewed meaning: Caine, too, has supposedly been freed, but as long as he’s alive, those he’s hurt will come after him. This is precisely the fate that John wants to avoid. This is why he pretty much has to disappear off the face of the Earth.
And maybe even we have to believe that John Wick is dead. Because if we believe he’s gone, we won’t immediately clamor for sequels from poor Keanu Reeves (who will be 60 years old in two years) and Chad Stahelski (who has a bazillion films in preproduction or development but has never gotten to direct a non–John Wick movie and would probably love to branch out a bit). By ending the film on this note, they’ve not only given John Wick his freedom, they’ve also claimed their own. At least for a while.
More on John Wick: Chapter 4
- The Best Movies of 2023 (So Far)
- One Take. Three Days. A Painstaking Dance.
- ‘We’re Going to Do the Biggest Stair Fall You’ve Ever Seen’