There are few franchises with a modus operandi as simple as that of the John Wick saga: a tortured assassin takes out waves of goons in an escalating series of highly stylised and ultra-violent action set-pieces.
So faithfully and unapologetically do the movies stick to this formula that if the first and second movies didn’t in any way float your boat, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum likely isn’t going to win you over. If you are a John Wick fan or a lover of action movies in general, though, it’s good news: this third instalment is an absolute riot, despite a few stumbles along the way.
Kicking off pretty much immediately after the end of Chapter 2, Chapter 3 offers up a breathless opening act, getting stuck straight into the action from the off and rarely letting up.
Having just been reluctantly declared “excommunicado” by Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) for killing a crime boss on hotel grounds, the titular assassin (played once again by an impressively committed Keanu Reeves) is on the run. He’s been given an hour’s headstart before the $14 million bounty on his head comes into effect. Trouble is, his fearsome reputation means that every contract killer worth their salt wants a pop at him – and not everyone is willing to wait. With the whole underworld against him, John’s only option is to – as the film’s Latin subtitle suggests – “prepare for war”…
The “trust no one” angle and ticking-timer plot (once the headstart runs out, the bounty increases hourly) are a real bonus here, imbuing this third outing with a real sense of urgency – something that was often lacking from the over-extended world-building of Chapter 2 – and going some way to prevent the formula getting stale.
That’s not to say that we don’t get to see more of Wick’s universe, though: there’s still time to travel to some glitzy new locations, such as the Moroccan Continental, and meet a host of compelling new characters. From Asia Kate Dillon’s steely Adjudicator and Anjelica Huston’s Belarusian mafia boss to Halle Berry’s kickass “dog-fu” specialist Sofia and Mark Dacascos’ sword-wielding assassin Zero, most of the newbies make a fierce first impression despite limited screen time (although the less said about Jerome Flynn’s dodgy-accented fixer, the better).
Let’s be honest, though: the reason we’re all here is for the fights, and on that front, Chapter 3 certainly doesn’t disappoint (although it might just test your tolerance for people getting shot in the face). The film incredibly manages to up the action ante – no mean feat given the blistering set-pieces of the first two films – and dishes up a series of increasingly jaw-dropping stunts that are, as always, captured operatically. As ever, the ace up the John Wick series’ sleeve is its director Chad Stahelski – a former stuntman who knows exactly how to film action, meaning that not one ounce of choreography is wasted.
Riffing on modern Asian action cinema more than ever before (look out for some cool nods to The Villainess and The Raid 2), Chapter 3 looks absolutely incredible – the lighting and set design, in particular, are both on point – while the director and stunt crew use everything at their disposal in the pursuit of bruising, boundary-pushing dust-ups: horses, antique knives and even library books (eat your heart out, Jason Bourne) are all employed by Wick in his relentlessly bloody rampage.
Chapter 3’s other trump card comes in the shape of Dacascos’ villain. Part ninja, part samurai, Zero is the franchise’s best villain yet. A renowned martial artist in his own right, the film really gives Dacascos a mainstream moment to shine: not only is his character a ruthless, formidable nemesis that provides Reeves’ Wick with his biggest challenge to date (their glass-room showdown is a staggering series high-point), he also brings a quirky, twisted sense of humour to the role that simultaneously gives Zero more of a personality than previous Wick baddies and makes him even more menacing.
If anything rankles, it’s that Wick himself is pushed even further into superhuman territory than ever before – something that jars slightly for a film that’s pointedly all about consequences. He gets hurt – badly – at points, sure, but his recoveries become so incredulous as the film goes on that the whole thing goes a step too far with the suspension of disbelief.
Still, that’s a small price to pay for action this accomplished. What’s really impressive is that Stahelski and co – moreso than they did with their previous outing – manage to make a samey premise not so samey. Wick’s ability to withstand a fourth chapter, though, seems like a trickier target.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is in cinemas now.