Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Halle Berry
“Parabellum” is Latin for “Prepare for war”, and by the end of the third chapter of the John Wick franchise, you will discover that the 130 minutes of mayhem you just watched is actually that: a prologue for even more mayhem. How you feel about that depends on your appetite for photogenic violence and Keanu Reeves’ patently wobbly line readings. Personally, I felt a sinking in my stomach.
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John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum picks up where Chapter 2 left off, with the titular hitman on the run in New York City after exacting revenge in a no-kill zone: the hotel run by his friend and erstwhile mentor Winston (Ian McShane, cornering the market on father figures for damaged anti-heroes). Now Wick is “excommunicado” with a 14 million-dollar bounty on his head, and every bystander in Manhattan seems to have their knives and firearms out. The movie starts with a propulsive energy, and its first two action set pieces are the best. The inaugural fight is set in the New York Public Library, and makes you see the spines of hardcover books for the deadly weapons they can be. The second is set in a chamber whose walls are covered in glass cases of guns and knives, and is so unapologetically over-the-top that it high-kicks its violence past spoof straight into cool without breaking a sweat.
John Wick’s essentially dumb premise—once-retired hitman goes on a killing spree to avenge the death of his puppy—is dressed up with intriguing world-building. It’s a trip to observe the fastidious rules and bylaws that these assassins follow, the code that allows them to co-exist without randomly slitting each other’s throats. The first two John Wick movies coast along on that sweet spot between simplicity of idea and elaborateness of execution, allowing your brain to switch off and let the tingle of your nerve endings take over.
The problem with Chapter 3 is that it aims for elaborateness of idea too. The first sign of trouble comes in the form of an overstuffed cast: There are the regulars like McShane, Laurence Fishburne as the weapons and intelligence honcho Bowery King, and Lance Reddick as Charon the West Indies-accented concierge. Then there’s Anjelica Huston as a Russian ballet director with ties to Wick’s backstory, and the Oscar winner approaches the role as a sort of bookend to the mob daughter she played in Prizzi’s Honor, packing a lifetime of world-weariness in lines like “Art is pain, life is suffering.” Pretty soon, an officious figure called The Adjudicator (played by non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon) turns up, enforcing muddled codes of conduct: She wants Winston and Bowery King to give up their positions because they helped the excommunicado John Wick, never mind that they helped him before he was excommunicado. (Those assassin rules are even more Byzantine than tax law.) Among the new cast members, the only one that really pops is Mark Dacascos as a sushi chef/killer/John Wick fanboy named Zero, whose angular bone structure makes even his character’s unabashed adulation seem lethal.
And then the movie has Wick travel to Morocco, where he meets up with another figure from his past: Sofia (Halle Berry), a vixen with a chip on her shoulder and her own hotel for hitmen—and this is where Chapter 3 really loses its way. If the movie had stayed the course of making its taciturn hero fight baddies as they come at him, it would have been a mind-numbing blast of adrenaline. Instead, it has Wick trekking the desert in search of an Elder (Wonder Woman’s Saïd Taghmaoui) so he can beg for his life. John wants to live so he can keep the memory of his wife alive—a stab at character-deepening motivation that makes not an iota of sense. This Sahara-set segment is a yawn and ultimately pointless. (Unless the point was to set up the workmanlike fighter Sofia for her own spin-off franchise in the John Wick Cinematic Universe…ugh.)
By the time its climactic battle rolls around, Chapter 3 is deeply mired in bloat: too much backstory, too many shifting allegiances, too many choreographed fights that end up being redundant. What was once a lean, mean fighting machine of a franchise ends up dripping with fat…and the promise of another sequel. Maybe John Wick should go back into retirement.
Photographs from Lionsgate