'John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum': Film Review

More thrilling ass-kickery than even dedicated fans could expect.
5/17/2019

Chad Stahelski directs the third installment of an increasingly elaborate hit-man saga starring Keanu Reeves.

Allow a graduate of Texas public schools, where "Latin" meant the kind of music Ricky Ricardo's band played, to do the googling for you: In addition to being the proper name of a firearm or two (how did that not make the curriculum?), "parabellum" is a Latin term meaning "prepare for war." And as hard as it is to believe after two hours of violence — often exhilarating, sometimes semi-comic, occasionally merely exhausting — Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum may be true to its title, a mere preparation for the series' grandest conflicts. An epic of choreographed mayhem that expands the Wickiverse in mostly pleasing ways, it is destined to satisfy fans of this surprise-hit franchise. If its ludicrous aspects bug you, what the hell are you doing here?

The action starts almost exactly where the last film ended, with Wick (Keanu Reeves) racing through midtown Manhattan with less than an hour on the clock: At 6 p.m., he will be excommunicated from the global community of assassins — no longer welcome at their swanky hideaways and, perhaps worse, subject to a $14 million "open contract." Every assassin in New York — and it seems there are a couple on every block — will be trying to kill him.

The pic doesn't wait until the clock strikes six to pit our hero against his first would-be executioner: a giant who approaches him in the stacks of a library for a thrilling bit of close-quarters combat in which, yes, somebody says "shh." (Don't worry, he pays for the bad joke.) Just a few scenes later comes a second sequence that, in a lesser film, would be the one thing everybody talked about on their way out of the theater: Having found himself scrounging for weapons in a cavernous antiques store, Wick faces a series of assailants and must improvise continuously: Smash glass cabinet; grab knife; throw knife with lethal accuracy; repeat. There's more to the set piece than that, but you get the idea. And then, it's on to what might best be described as horse-fu.

Knowing that even he can't fight off an entire city, Wick seeks safe passage out of the town, occasioning this installment's first expansion of the Wick mythology. Suffice it to say that a very chilly character played by Anjelica Huston knows John by another name; he holds a talisman he earned for doing who-knows-what terrible thing, and he's come to cash in the favor it represents. She balks, but Wick is determined: "You are bound and I am owed," he growls. So she sneaks him out of America — to Morocco, where he thinks he can quash this death sentence.

Those nitpicky New Yorkers who grouse about the Wick films' geographic cheats (where, say, a New York City subway train might stop at a New Jersey PATH station) may remain happily ignorant of the filmmakers' sins in North Africa: The movie promises to take us to Casablanca, only to deliver us to (much more picturesque) Essaouira, and then pretends it's just a quick drive from there to the middle of the Sahara. Such are the forgivable sins of movies that wow us with exotic locations. The only geographical flubs that matter here are those that reflect poorly on a protagonist's intelligence: What wraith-like assassin would hail a cab in Times Square — at rush hour — hoping to get to the main public library? You can get there on foot before the cab would escape the glow of video billboards.

In Morocco, we get clues about another forgotten chapter in the killer-for-hire's biography: Wick is owed a massive favor (a "marker," in the series' parlance, represented by a weighty medallion) by Halle Berry's Sofia, whose daughter he rescued from unspecified danger long ago. The least grateful mom moviegoers have seen in some time, Sofia complains nastily about repaying this good deed, and Berry gives one of the least enjoyable performances in a trilogy where overacting is hardly discouraged. But Sofia does have a pair of German shepherds whose vicious hunger for bad guys' genitals steals a scene or two.

Though its increasingly sprawling narrative may put some viewers in mind of another Reeves franchise whose sequels drowned under the weight of their ambition, John Wick is no Matrix. If the Moroccan interlude saps the film of much of the first act's rush (which was, to be fair, unsustainable), things get back up to speed once we return to NYC.

While Wick was away, a mysterious "Adjudicator" (Asia Kate Dillon) appeared — a representative of the criminal cabal known as the High Table, sent to punish those who helped Wick break the rules in the last film. Both Winston (Ian McShane), who runs the assassins' hotel called The Continental, and the self-appointed king of the Bowery's bums (Laurence Fishburne) are given seven days to put their affairs in order before they're removed from their roles, presumably with lethal force.

Somewhere in here, the Adjudicator stopped off at a sidewalk sushi bar and hired the chef, who, like everybody else in this damn town, is a killer-for-hire. Zero (Mark Dacascos) leads a crew that simply must be called the Sushi Ninjas, a multicultural gang including two bladesmen (Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian) action-flick fans will remember from the Raid films. These guys are all awed by the legendary John Wick, but that doesn't keep them from trying to slice-and-dice him. Though they first encounter their hero/target in Grand Central Station, their major showdown occurs in Winston's multilevel, all-glass "administrative offices," where they give Wick a beating no mortal should be able to withstand.

If the setting of Chapter 2's climax, a hall-of-mirrors museum installation, was a kind of Instagram thirst-trap version of The Lady From Shanghai, this film offers the series' take on Jacques Tati's Playtime, a cold glass world where transparent barriers cause playful misunderstandings — when they're not keeping one guy from killing another. Much more beautiful than the previous film's finale, this sequence also makes better use of the personalities in the room and, in its best moments, is as thrilling as the leaner fight scenes that got the movie started.

What happens after that very drawn-out fight does not quite leave viewers in the state of suspended excitement they might've enjoyed at the end of Chapter 2; in fact, there may be a couple of stifled groans of disbelief in the crowd. But few who've endured the escalating punishments of chapters one through three are likely to bail out before the next installment.

Production company: Thunder Road Films
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Halle Berry, Saïd Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn, Jason Mantzoukas, Tobias Segal, Boban Marjanovic, Anjelica Huston, Cecep Arif Rahman, Yayan Ruhian
Director: Chad Stahelski
Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee
Executive producers: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch, Joby Harold, Jeff Waxman
Director of photography: Dan Laustsen
Production designer: Kevin Kavanaugh
Costume designer: Luca Mosca
Editor: Evan Schiff
Composers: Tyler Bates, Joel J. Richard
Casting directors: Mary Vernieu, Marisol Roncali

Rated R, 130 minutes