John Wick has morphed from the world’s deadliest dog lover into an avatar for righteous revenge. His abundant, improbable skills help him wage war against hypocrisy and corruption. Anyone who has ever been frustrated by their workplace culture will find some wish fulfillment in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, an action thriller where the hero makes the leadership pay and looks great doing it. Director Chad Stahelski seemingly reverse-engineers his impressive action sequences—taking absurd concepts, then finding practical ways to film them—and the sheer variety of brutal violence will have audiences cheer or wince in perfect harmony.
Parabellum picks up right where the second film left off. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is the world’s greatest assassin, and after breaking the rules of the High Table (the guild in which he operates), his longtime friend Winston (Ian McShane) labels him “excommunicado.” This means John no longer has any of the privileges afforded to his fellow assassins, and there is a $14 million bounty on his head. After a breathless opening where John fights for his survival, he secures passage to Casablanca where he hopes to reason with the guild’s leadership. Meanwhile we meet an intriguing new character: Asia Kate Dillon plays the Adjudicator, a dispassionate authority from the High Table who cleans up John’s mess. The Adjudicator enlists the assistance of Zero (Mark Dacascos), another deadly assassin, so that they’re ready when John finally returns.
While the original John Wick and its sequel had their share of gallows humor, this entry is even more aware of how absurd this all sounds. Sure, there is the typical ballet of violence that ends with John vanquishing his foes, except now there is slightly more self-awareness about it. Consider a sequence where John fights two guys in an armory. There are gorgeous, ornate cases filled with an assortment of swords and knives. They keep running out of weapons, so what’s the solution? Smash the cases, and grab as many knives as necessary. That slapstick quality slackens the grim stakes, which then lets the audience relax. When the brutal moments of death finally arrive, don’t worry about feeling gross afterward. Parabellum was designed to be satisfying in this way.
In between the mayhem, the story unfolds like a detached comedy of manners. John visits several people who owe him a favor, and each one treats him with a mix of deference and hostility. These scenes are intriguing because of how they riff on the tired “honor among thieves” trope. Anjelica Huston and Halle Berry play characters who have a past with John and are not happy to see him, yet they cannot deny that they are also obligated to him. The script builds an inevitable subtext: The norms where these people operate are fundamentally byzantine and unfair. In a wry performance that could have been flat, Dillon’s the Adjudicator further clarifies that idea. They are dispassionate and exacting, and their coiled presence is a jibe at John, who shuffles through one nasty injury after another.
All this intrigue and world-building would not matter, however, if the film didn’t deliver. In terms of pure action spectacle, Parabellum is kinetic and carefully choreographed. Aside from the aforementioned knife fight, folks will likely remember an elaborate motorcycle chase. You can imagine the meeting with Stahelski and his team: Someone asks “how would a sword fight even work on motorcycles?” Other sequences are borne out of challenges the filmmakers create for themselves, while the simpler shoot-outs and fights are satisfying on a purely visceral level. At one point, John fights dozens of armored guards, so he needs special armor-piercing shotgun shells. The pleasing explosions of shotgun fire are louder than anything else in the movie, and the splattered skulls only add to the macabre sense of satisfaction.
Without Keanu Reeves, the John Wick films simply would not exist. That is not just because of his commitment to martial arts and stunt work. His performance strikes a strange note between rage and serenity. He never seems too surprised by the injuries and obstacles that befall him, and while his performance is understated, you can hear the rage that only gets more focused as the film continues. Action franchises run the risk of overstaying their welcome, and the uneven John Wick Chapter 2 indeed created some cause for worry. By making Parabellum tighter on a larger canvas, you’ll be aching for John to bring the whole damn system down.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum opens Friday in theaters everywhere.