The appeal of John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, and the John Wick movies, seems niche but is actually fairly broad: The pitch: Have you missed the slick, glossy, high-contrast, heavily-choreographed, hardware-obsessed, nightclub-lit, techno-paced action films of the late-1990s but not how those films often didn’t deliver on real bloodletting and brutality? Do you like those parts of spy, mafia and/or conspiracy thrillers where people bring TOKENS and SYMBOLS to PLACES and meet CONTACTS and everything has generic-yet-ominous names suggesting a sprawling shadow world? Do you like Keanu Reees? Well okay, everyone likes Keanu Reeves … but would you like Keanue and all those other things together!?
That mix was the first John Wick, in which Keanu Reeves was the World’s Greatest Hitman shaken out of retirement when a gangster’s no-good son killed his dog and Wick retaliated by killing everybody. Then in John Wick: Chapter 2 he killed everybody else. Now in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum he pretty much continues to do that; there’s not much else to it. But that simplicity also makes the John Wick machine more than the sum of its parts. The franchise boils the most basic action movie formula down to its bare skeleton and, in lieu of adding new skin and muscle, paints the bones astonishingly pretty. You’re either onboard for it or you’re not.
I am, of course, onboard. The original which was a near-perfect combination of Reeve’s low-key zen charisma, a pared down storyline in a hyperreal world that stops short of ironically riffing on the interchangeability of action-movie worldbuilding tropes. Wick is a retired assassin formerly employed by the High Table, a vaguely-defined international criminal syndicate that’s part Russian Mob, part Illuminati and part Les Vampyres. As he dives back in to exact his revenge, we watch him navigate elaborate token-exchange and contract-negotiation systems that give the world having its own unique rules and laws. The byzantine assassin laws are noticeably inconvenient for running a crime empire but perfect for facilitating amazing action sequences.
Chapter 2 attempted to double down and expand on the abstract worldbuilding aspect to diminishing, but still admirably crafted, effect. Now Parabellum successfully aims for the best of both worlds. It expands the scope and presence of its universe while building its story around fight sequences that are utterly mind-blowing. Not every action film’s third installment could open by asking: “What if the bad guys literally chase John Wick into The All Guns And Knives Store?” The implication in turn is: “Yeah, and then we’re planning on topping this!”
And top it they do, at least in terms of the action. As concerns the story — such as it is — we’re once again right where the last left off. Having broken “The Rules” by killing on “consecrated” ground — we don’t know what that means and we’re not supposed to — John Wick is now on the run and excommunicated from his order of assassins. That means every other hitman in the world can now collect a price on his head and he’s not allowed to use any of the safehouses, doctors, weaponsmiths and other special services previously available to him. That sounds like the sequel is going to force itself to do something completely different. It mostly just means he has to fight more attackers who are more dangerous while collecting different tokens of passage for meeting more important surprise guest stars as he moves up the hierarchy of the High Table to get his bounty rescinded.
John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum might be the overall best of the lot.
The big thematic swing here is that we’re circling back to the broad notion of the series as a hyper-violent metaphor for grief and depression. Wick is fighting to stay alive so he can continue grieving as a kind of human memorial to his lost loved ones. That’s a profound theme for this kind of movie, and it’s unfortunate that it isn’t fully backed up by what’s on screen. Parabellum resorts to just having Reeves explain the theme explicitly out loud. This movie suggests that it’s going to be a what-did-it-all-mean summation of the John Wick cycle but it’s ultimately content to suggest bigger thematic ideas than it is to actually explore them.
Still, the artful gloss of those suggestions, applied liberally to the true focus on colorful characters and astonishingly good action, is what you pay for at John Wick movies. By that measure it’s possible that — even if nothing will ever top the “Where did THIS come from!?” surprise of the original — Parabellum might be the overall best of the lot. Scenes like a katana fight on high-speed motorcycles; Wick quick-building a gun from spare parts, an extended shootout co-starring a pair of trained attack dogs backing up their master; and the obligatory “We just really want to fight you because you’re … y’know, YOU, okay?” martial-arts showdown between Wick and Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid are the kind of things other films might use as climaxes. Here they’re just so many snacks en route to the main course.
It helps that the new characters are more amusing than the ones who started to blur together in Chapter 2. Halle Berry has gotten the most attention as a fellow semi-retired hitwoman Wick seeks out for a mission in Casablanca and she more than reaffirms her action-heroine and B-movie badass credentials. (The number of years Berry spent chasing dreary mainstream awards bait rather than embracing her obviously substantial skill as an over-the-top genre queen will never not feel like a major loss.) Angelica Houston has fun doing the legit-legend turn. And the always delightful, eternally-underappreciated Mark Dacascos gets some winking self-parody in as an assassin and master sushi-chef whose combat speciality makes for a great reveal. Once you realize what it is you might start asking if it’s the best version of what-it-is ever.
The standout is the enigmatic Asia Kate Dillon as “The Adjudicator,” a representative of the upper-level bad guys who shows up in a B-plot to manage the fallout from everyone who decided to bend the rules in John Wick’s favor in Chapter 2. On the one hand, the “What happens when this world starts to entropy?” storyline is the most intriguing narrative check that the film writes but ultimately decides not to cash. While that plot plays out, though, Dillon manages to be such a captivating presence that they very nearly manage to steal a John Wick movie without firing a single shot.
I did find myself thinking: “This is awesome, but I feel like it had the potential to be more!” but only because what’s already there is SO MUCH. A must watch for Wick fans, hardcore action lovers in general and a damn good time for everybody else.