First let me get this minor SPOILER out of the way (mostly for my Mom): No, Mom, none of the dogs die. You can watch it in peace now.
At some point in the baroquely titled John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum you are reminded in a very humorous way that at its core, the John Wick series is ostensibly about some guy getting irrationally and murderously angry at some people who killed his dog and landing in a world of trouble because of it. That this moment happens in the middle of yet another ridiculously over-the-top gunfight on the rooftop of a fictional coin mint in the heart of Casablanca underscores both the stupendous level of world-building the series has undertaken and the risky high-wire act it continues to engage in as it balances its rich mythology over its razor-thin narrative.
The original John Wick was a relatively quiet indie-action movie wherein Mr. Wick (Keanu Reeves) returns to his life as an underground assassin after some mobster’s son had the audacity to kill his dog and steal his car. Part 2 meanwhile was a case of world expansion, as director Chad Stahelski plunged the audience into John Wick’s shadow assassin world in an almost Alice in Wonderland-like fashion with its mysterious coins, castle-like Continental hotels, and rules and regulations befitting a high-fantasy world.
But it is in Chapter 3 that we realize John Wick’s journey is not of high fantasy but is instead a recreation of Dante’s Inferno whereby each chapter finds our protagonist dive deeper and deeper into the muck, with his deadly abilities increasingly nullified by the world’s nihilistic darkness. Starting precisely where Chapter 2 left off, we find Wick a mere hour away from being rendered ex communicado for committing the unforgivable sin of doing company business (aka killing a rival) on Continental property. It basically means that he is mere moments from being the target of every money-grubbing assassin New York – which is on the surface a bad situation for Wick but in reality is cataclysmic for all who come across his deadly path.
Unlike in Wick movies past our hero is shown to be in generally bad shape, wounded from previous battles and cut off from the resources that made him such a deadly force in the past. This gives every fight Wick engages in a hint of desperation as like a cornered dog he bites, scratches, and claws his way out of New York. It is saying something that this is in some ways the most violent of the Wick movies and you can expect to join in many collective winces if you choose to see this in a theater crowd. But Parabellum also exposes the limits of John Wick’s deadly powers as his killing ability does little in helping him escape the grasp of the High Table who simply want him dead at all costs.
Meanwhile Parabellum gladly continues this series’ excellent record of world building. Through the course of Wick’s latest journey, he encounters a Russian mobster called the Director and played gamely by Anjelica Huston who smuggles him out of New York and into Casablanca. There is also the cerebral Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) who is sent from the High Table to mete out justice against all those who have helped John Wick so far. In his travels to Casablanca he encounters a former ally in Sofia (Halle Berry, who here banishes any post-Catwoman thoughts that she cannot do action scenes), and then meets the minter of the assassin world’s mysterious coins (Jerome Flynn). His main rival in this movie is a Wick-fanboy cum-deadly assassin called Zero (Mark Dacascos). There is literally someone called the Tick-Tock Man (Jason Mantzoukas). Each new piece to John Wick’s world is introduced with the sort of casualness that almost mocks the newcomer to the franchise; you either have to be fully onboard with the ridiculous mythology the Wick-verse throws at you or be left behind.
But really, coming to a John Wick movie for plot and setting is like going to your favorite theme park for the food. The selling point of every John Wick movie is its numerous action sequences and in this regard Parabellum might just be the best of them all. Most of the action scenes bear the mark of a random scene generator (“fight a giant with a library book”, “motorcycle vs. horseback chase”, “takes on villains with attack dogs”). Even something as innocuous as a knife fight quickly escalates to a balletic crescendo of violence. Stunt-coordinator-turned-director Chad Stahelski has previously made it known that his Wick series is meant to be a showcase of the talents of stunt crews. Based on the sheer audacity of most of the frenetic stunts performed here, he makes a powerful case that stunt-making is truly an art-form. Where the Mission Impossible franchise seems to be built on whatever climactic stunt they can convince Tom Cruise’s insurance to cover, the Wick series seems to be built by stunt people throwing out just about every stunt they wish they could do in a movie. And thankfully Keanu Reeves is perfectly game to play along.
The ultra-violence on display is somewhat tempered by the ridiculous nature of the violence – it’s over-the-top nature and faceless villains easily helps disengage the viewer from anything resembling real violence and murder. But the sleek and stylish aesthetic of John Wick’s world also lends itself to surrealism giving the entire proceeding the look and feel of a video-game. And it strikes me that where we have a glut of mediocre to near-unwatchable video-game adaptations, that John Wick 3 most closely resembles the gamer experience especially in its finale with a host of set-piece battles leading up to a final clash with a series of mini-bosses and the final boss. And unlike most bad video-game adaptations, watching Wick’s battles unfold is exhilarating partly because Reeves in his cerebral portrayal of Mr. Wick makes it all too easy to be caught up in his violent histrionics.
If there is a fault in Parabellum it can be found in its title as Chapter 3 of the series. While the original John Wick was an indie delight and Chapter 2 provided an exhilarating expansion of the world, Parabellum sometimes feels like merely a chapter in the larger story rather than a complete movie in and of itself. From about the halfway point in the movie you can tell that the screenplay is desperately moving all the pieces together not just for its final act but, as the runtime increasingly moves to its terminus, for the inevitable sequel. While every previous Wick movie has ended with the hint of a future installment, Parabellum is the first one to devote a significant chunk of the movie as a glorified teaser for the next movie.
And while I have no problem with a John Wick sequel, it does beg the question of how long this series can sustain itself. With every possible sequel the reality that the series’ schtick will grow stale grows exponentially and that its quest to one-up itself will descend into parody. These are however concerns for the future. Parabellum on its own terms delivers everything we could want in a Wick sequel – and while it literally leaves us hanging, it does so in a way that left me impatiently waiting for what’s next. This summer has seen many a franchise come to a screeching halt because of their uninspired retreads. Thankfully John Wick 3 stands as an exception to that trend, and instead continues the Wick series’ reputation as one of the most exciting action franchises still operating today. It’s starting to get hot outside, you could do much worse to escape the Summer heat than to sit down and enjoy the epitome of a movie this season was made for.
Runtime: 131 minutes
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams
Starring Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Angelica Huston, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn, Randall Duk Kim, Jason Mantzoukas