Keanu Reeves serves up another bloody helping of face-shooting mayhem in a third entry that cements the series’ utter supremacy on the action movie stage.
“Parabellum” is Latin for ‘prepare for war’; it’s also the alternate name for various German pistols manufactured throughout the 20th century. For this, the third chapter in the impossibly bloody, improbably excellent John Wick series, it’s a fitting subtitle – if the first two films felt like physically exhausting rampages through the dark streets of New York City, Chapter 3 feels like all-out war. It’s also more of the same, but when you’ve perfected the art of on-screen action spectacle, it’s hard to complain. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Chapter 3 picks up immediately after the events of Chapter 2, in which master assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves) is declared ‘excommunicado’ from the mysterious league of assassins to which he belongs for killing a man on company grounds – no resources, no help, and a $15 million bounty on his head for every enterprising hitman to collect if they can take him down. In a desperate attempt to survive the night and clear his name, Wick cashes in favors from everyone who might still owe him – from a mysterious mother figure (Anjelica Huston) to former colleague-turned-manager Sofia (Halle Berry) who might just be able to lead him to the mysterious leader of the organization.
But this time, Wick’s not the only one in hot water – everyone who helped him, from friend and former handler Winston (Ian McShane) to the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) who runs the city’s underground network of homeless informants, are targeted for punishment by a mysterious, no-nonsense Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon, offering up some welcome nonbinary representation).
The John Wick series might just be some of the best Max Payne movies ever made, and Parabellum is no exception. The plot, as with the prior films, is threadbare and serves only as an excuse to get our rattled protagonist from setpiece to setpiece. At this point, Reeves and director Chad Stahelski (collaborators since Stahelski was Reeves’ stunt double on the Matrix films) have the Wick formula down to a science – put Keanu Reeves in a tattered black suit, throw him in various neon-lit warehouses and nightclubs, put a pistol in his hand and watch him murder dozens, if not hundreds, of people, in the most creatively brutal ways. It’s about the atmosphere, not plot – just plop an awesome action star into a delightfully baroque world where seemingly everyone on Earth is a tattooed assassin following arcane sets of rules.
The John Wick series has never been shy about being a multi-million dollar stuntman exhibition, a salon on the balletic nature of stunt choreography – Chapter 3 deigns to show footage of Buster Keaton’s The General on a screen in Times Square in its opening minutes, while recurrent footage of actual ballet hammers home the similarities between the two art forms. Fight sequences, after all, are just another kind of dance – which might make Reeves the Mikhail Baryshnikov of shooting people in the face.
At 130 minutes, Parabellum threatens to become exhausting with its nonstop parade of protracted shootouts and swordfights on motorcycles, but each new sequence somehow feels fresh and inventive. Maybe that’s because of Stahelski and Reeves’ clear sense of joy when crafting each of the film’s incredible action sequences. Each new setpiece offers up a new gimmick or set of challenges for Wick to overcome – battling motorcycled hitmen on horseback, clearing out a bazaar of bad guys with the help of Sofia and her two Very Good Dogs in tactical vests who attack on command, getting in close to take out bad guys in head-to-toe bulletproof armor. Stahelski, Reeves and the stunt coordinators haven’t missed a beat since the last film, and Parabellum offers up some of the most excellent showcases of their craft.
At the center of it all is Reeves, the fifty-something finally starting to show his age as Wick – his face is a little droopier, his eyes more sunken, his creaking joints making him walk a little more bow-legged than in his youth. But that’s absolutely perfect for this leg of the Wick-iverse, and what makes the character so appealing: he’s Baba Yaga, an assassin so notorious most of his enemies express gratitude for the chance to fight him, but he’s also a middle-aged man who can’t keep this up much longer. He’s as exhausted by the onslaught he must endure as the audience, which makes the whole affair feel that much more visceral. That he can do it to the extent he does, and still looks fantastic, is a testament to both Wick and Reeves’ dedication to the role.
Fight sequences, after all, are just another kind of dance – which might make Reeves the Mikhail Baryshnikov of shooting people in the face.
For maybe the first time, though, in Parabellum Stahelski and his phalanx of screenwriters give us a few other characters to really root for. Berry’s Sofia feels like an extended cameo – she’s only really there to assist Wick in the second act – but she has killer chemistry with Reeves and an admirable set of action chops during her big setpieces. (I wouldn’t mind seeing a spinoff, which is what her appearance is clearly intended to set up.)
But the real treat is Mark Dacascos, ’90s martial arts action star and, until recently, the Chairman on Iron Chef America, as Wick’s nemesis for the film, an impish assassin named Zero who’s just a huge fan of his target. Dacascos plays him with a delightful wink, and it’s awesome to see Reeves go toe-to-toe with a martial artist who can match him punch for punch. If you ask me whether the former Chairman can come back to high-kicking action films, Parabellum‘s only response is, “Yeah… I’m thinking he’s back.”
None of this would work, however, without the series’ deliciously comic book-y setting, a labyrinthine world of bureaucratic contract killers obsessed with rules and consequences. Society, one character (played by Game of Thrones’ Jerome Flynn) tells Wick and Sofia, is built on “the commerce of relationships” – the social contracts we agree upon to keep a civilization running. While it’s possible to go through Parabellum ignoring all that and enjoying the acrobatic grappling and gunfights, it also sets up a thematic core that allows Wick’s actions to have a little more heft. Consequences, after all, are at the root of all revenge films; this whole thing kicked off because Theon Greyjoy killed John Wick’s puppy.
Even in Parabellum, the film tasks Wick with making some hard choices, bouncing between freedom and morality, his personal code and that of the society he lives in. There’s an air of inevitability to everything the characters in these films do: favors are honored because they’re writ in blood, or codified by the High Table. Wick isn’t the only tragic character here: everyone from Winston to Zero plays out their roles, understanding that it might lead to their death. Turning the mechanics of revenge films into the bylaws of their universe might be one of the smartest, most economical bits of storytelling the John Wick series offers. Without them, they’re empty, well-performed action spectacle; with them, they feel like Russian literature with headshots.
The UNIX philosophy asks you to “do one thing, and do it well.” With the John Wick series, that thing is ball-busting, brutally beautiful action spectacle. And it does it quite well, in fact.