For a semi-retired super assassin who’s killed more people than the Bubonic plague, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is actually a pretty relatable guy. Beneath the concave cheekbones, the magical handguns with infinite bullet capacity, and the byzantine criminal underworld that stretches to every corner of the globe, he’s just a monosyllabic middle-aged man who wants to be left the fuck alone.
When the first movie of this increasingly ridiculous saga began, Mr. Wick was grieving his wife’s death in peace — then some Russian mobsters made the mistake of killing his dog (her name was Daisy, and she was very cute). This aggression, unknowingly committed against a man so dangerous that he used to be known as “Baba Yaga,” forced John back into the network of contract killers he’d once left behind. And ever since the shadowy crime lords of the High Table sniffed blood, they haven’t lost the scent or minded their own business.
At the end of “John Wick: Chapter 2,” our laconic hero committed a big no-no by shooting a pest on the consecrated grounds of the Continental Hotel, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and every New Yorker knows what it’s like when the world gets a bit too close for comfort.
Giddy, exhausting, and breathtakingly violent, “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” begins a few seconds after the previous installment left off, with the excommunicated assassin trying to make the most of the hour-long headstart he’s been given to hide before the $14 million bounty on his head is triggered and the entire criminal underworld comes after him. Of course, anyone who’s seen the previous films in this unexpected franchise knows that its criminal underworld is more of an overworld, and that almost every featured extra — from street vendors and waiters to dog-walkers and homeless people — is a heat-packing hired gun who uses their role in the capitalist system as a disguise for their deeper allegiance to a veiled society that operates on an ancient market of codes and blood oaths.
Now that Mr. Wick is square in the middle of all of those crosshairs, it’s become comically impossible for the deathless widower to find the solace he seeks. He’s a target, and it seems like the entire world has its finger on the trigger; he used to be anonymous, but now he’s a celebrity.
In its most enjoyably demented moments, “Parabellum” is nothing short of a non-stop metaphor for being famous. Less artful but more concussive than its immediate predecessor, this latest outing finds Mr. Wick being clocked by strangers every time he enters a room, stalked by his biggest fans, and so desperate for someone who will treat him like an actual human being that he travels all the way to the Sahara Desert to find them. Everyone in the world knows him by name, New York City is the only place on Earth he can hide in plain sight, and the perks of his job don’t seem to compare with the harassment that comes with them.
As Wick stumbles through the wet neon streets of Times Square — returning us to a surprisingly involved film world that flows like “The Raid” and looks like a hyper-saturated Instagram feed — it’s hard not to think of Reeves’ recent experience on a malfunctioning airplane, and how even that death-defying ordeal was turned into a viral moment (to the actor’s mild chagrin). Reeves once said that Wick was 40% him, but that number seems to have crept up a bit this time around. No movie has ever expressed the fight for anonymity with such viscerally literal force.
True to the serialized nature of its title, “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” starts in media res and ends on a cliffhanger. For an 131-minute film that devotes roughly 110 minutes of its runtime to people shooting each other in the head at close range, it would be almost impossible to follow for someone who isn’t up to speed. Still, the gist of the plot is pretty simple: John Wick kills a lot of people. Like, a lot of people. By the end of “Parabellum,” he’s basically the leading cause of death in henchmen between the ages of 25 and 50.
More of a one-man massacre than ever before (but just raggedy enough to keep things “real”), Mr. Wick fights in a punishingly brutal style that builds on what director Chad Stahelski invented for the character in the previous films. This is a character who appears to know every single language under the sun, but violence is the most expressive part of his vocabulary (Reeves speaks maybe 100 words in the entire movie). Chinese wushu, Japanese judo, Southeast Asian silat, American Glock… Wick is fluent in them all.
But while Stahelski and his team have obviously put a great deal of thought into every frame of fisticuffs, “Parabellum” is so relentless that it often devolves into a numbing flurry of shoulder flips and headshots. If “Chapter 2” bordered on high art for how cleverly it weaved tactical shootouts into public locations (and made every fight operate like an organic bit of world-building), “Chapter 3” is more out in the open. A sneaky little skirmish in Grand Central Station doesn’t live up to Stahelski’s creative potential, even if it’s amazing they pulled off the scene at all.
Elsewhere, a motorcycle chase along an empty Manhattan bridge is too rushed and blurry to deliver the “Fury Road” ferocity it teases, and the climactic brawl — which makes great use of some familiar faces, and hinges on a funny dynamic of mutual respect — is overwhelmed by a set that looks like a high-end watch commercial, and feels like a watered-down retread of the house of mirrors sequence from the end of the previous movie.
Driven by a profound respect for the expressive power of beating someone to death, and empowered by their 54-year-old star’s remarkable skill and commitment, Stahelski and the other poets of percussive carnage that work at his 87Eleven Productions are still (a severed) head and shoulders above the rest of Hollywood’s stunt community. But they can do more with this character, even if it means slowing things down and widening them out.
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To that end, it’s telling that the most exciting brawl in “Parabellum” (with the possible exception of a knife fight in a Chinatown antiques store) maintains a more expansive vision, as Mr. Wick fights alongside Halle Berry and some four-legged sidekicks. Traveling to Casablanca for reasons that are never adequately explained, Mr. Wick meets up with an assassin named Sofia who owns a pair of well-trained Malinois dogs; like every other supporting character in this movie, there’s mixed blood between them, and she owes him something for some reason.
There are coins and seals and lots of jibber jabber about High Table manners and then “Game of Thrones” star Jerome Flynn shows up as a Bronn-like business type who’s a bit too greedy for his own good (it’s hard to tell what accent Flynn is doing here, but he’s most definitely doing it). When the bullets fly, Sofia’s very good boys lend a valuable assist, and Stahelski has to open things up in order to frame the dogs as they chew on fresh corpses. The sequence is very “John Wick” and horribly terrific in a hand-over-your-mouth kind of way; it does more than any of the tossed-off business with the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburn) or the Continental Hotel owner (Ian McShane) to whet our appetites for another adventure. Anjelica Huston is also somewhat wasted as the matriarch of a Harlem ballet academy with ties to Wick’s past, but her scenes are so immaculately shot that you’re willing to let it slide.
In a film that plays fast and loose with NYC geography, all is forgiven by turning 175th street’s United Palace into the “Tarkovsky Theater,” where people are trained to be killers in between performances of “Swan Lake.”
The film’s world-building works best in small doses. A meeting in the middle of the desert is a total dead end, whereas all sorts of fun details can be inferred from Stahelski’s frequent cutaways to the High Table nerve center, where dozens of tattooed and lip-glossed workers monitor Wick’s bounty with an old-fashioned switchboard (imagine a SuicideGirls reboot of “Mad Men” and you’ll have the right idea). Non-binary “Billions” star Asia Kate Dillon plays a stiff and slinky High Table adjudicator who’s covered in Thierry Mugler coture; part referee and part femme fatale, their performance speaks to an underworld that’s sustained by a mutual respect for all people so long as they don’t shoot the wrong target.
While this franchise is starting to feel a bit long in the tooth, such details suggest that screenwriter Derek Kolstad (here sharing credit with three other scribes) can still mine this world for plenty of new life, so long as future installments find a way to deepen the John Wick mythos instead of just stretching it out. With the significant exception of “Mission: Impossible,” this is easily the best action franchise Hollywood has going these days, and it would be great for it to keep going with renewed focus.
The fact that Keanu Reeves is nearing 60 won’t matter to his fans. For one thing, the man is seemingly ageless. For another, retirement no longer seems like a realistic option for a guy who still gets recognized everywhere he goes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Hollywood star or a $14 million bounty — fame can be a difficult thing to shake. It’s a work-or-die world, and being forgotten is neither on the table nor under it.
LionsGate will release “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” in theaters on Friday, May 17.