The next “John Wick” movie should start with a job fair where the secret society known as the High Table tries to recruit new killers to replace all the ones John Wick killed. After three movies and hundreds of dead bodies, there’s been a lot of churn in the industry.
“John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum” picks up right where “Chapter 2” left off, both chronologically (the third installment starts 10 seconds after the last one ended) and thematically. All three films showcase brutal, intricately choreographed fight scenes and shootouts within a stylish, baroque universe that’s weirder and better-dressed than our own. It’s a formula that works, and director Chad Stahelski, who has directed all three movies, sticks to it.
Maybe to a fault. “Chapter 3” is undeniably accomplished and exciting, and Keanu Reeves remains a magnetic centrifugal force in the midst of all the mayhem, the calm eye of a storm of blood spatters and broken bones. But those hoping the franchise might raise its game in what is ostensibly the end of a trilogy might feel a little underwhelmed when the shooting stops.
But it doesn’t stop for a while (131 minutes), and while it goes, “John Wick” is a lot of fun. To catch up the initiated, in the first movie Wick was an ex-assassin who got back in the game to avenge his beloved puppy. (His love of dogs is just one humanizing touch that keeps us squarely on his side.) In the second movie, Wick got caught in a power struggle between members of the High Table, and ended up “excommunicado,” on the run with a $14 million bounty on his head.
The new movie takes it from there, starting with a trip to the New York Public Library, and a fight scene that definitely proves physical media’s superiority over digital media. (You can’t kill a guy with an e-book.) Searching for a way back into the High Table’s good graces, Wick fights and kills from New York to Casablanca and back again.
Guns, knives, belts, horses, dogs – Wick uses whatever he has at his disposal to kill wave after wave of bad guys, and Chad knows how to stage a fight scene to showcase the balletic grace of Reeves and the other combatants. The takes are often long, but never distractingly so – just enough to make sure the audience appreciates the top-notch stuntwork on screen.
Back home, a High Table Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) is busy doling out punishment to those who have aided Wick, including the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and the plummy Winston (Ian McShane), who owns the Continental Hotel that is the closest thing Wick has to a home. McShane’s amused reaction shots to the mayhem around him is a reliable source of laughs in the movie.
New characters Wick meets along the way include a mysterious Russian woman known as The Director (Anjelica Huston), and Halle Berry as Sofia, a fellow assassin who fights with the help of two very good, very lethal dogs.
The film makes much of its rich world-building, of this not-very-secret underworld of criminals and the byzantine web of “civilized” rules and customs which bind them. But it becomes clear that these rules are ultimately pretty arbitrary, easily broken by those with enough power to rig the game in their favor.
“John Wick 3” only glances at these deeper, darker themes before retreating back to the next big fight scene. The end of this film sets up a cliffhanger for a future installment, and it feels past time for the franchise to raise the stakes, for John Wick to smash the system much as Reeves’ Neo broke “The Matrix” exactly 20 years ago. Tick tock, Mr. Wick.