Sometimes tropes can be like squibs to genre filmmaking: you can’t make an action movie without them. For instance, I’m sure you have seen the beat where one character holds a knife really close to the unblinking eye of another; it’s in everything from Mission: Impossible to Spider-Man 3. It’s in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum too, for the record, although they do it a little differently. In this, when Keanu Reeves struggles mightily with a blade above the pupil of an enemy. It hovers for a moment, and then it goes in.
That is about the long and short of the edge John Wick has to offer at this point—a brutally playful mean streak that, for its target audience, will sink right in like a knife through butter, but is still no deeper than the few inches of steel searching for squishy stuff. Beyond a cunning wickedness to the action choreography and direction that is still stunning five years since the first movie, there’s not much else to offer after two other impeccably dressed shoot ‘em ups about the debt man owes his best friend.
Indeed, John Wick: Chapter 3 picks up mere moments after the last film, which carried on pretty quickly following the first. All told, at most a week has passed since Theon Greyjoy had the audacity to kill John Wick’s dog. But unlike the other Jon in Theon’s life, Wick knows how to honor his furry companions—and those who would do harm to them. Even so, a few hundred bodies later, it is hard to remember what any of this about.
I suppose it’s about watching Keanu get from Point A to Point B while knocking over as many stuntmen as are employable in the New York metropolitan area, in which case Parabellum more than delivers. John fights them on horseback on the Lower East Side, he fights in the New York Public Library with rare antique editions, and he even travels all the way to Casablanca so they can call him Monsieur Wick (nice touch) before fighting them in the desert alongside Halle Berry. He simply fights, all while looking good in black designer suits and while keeping the good ol’ boy network alive one wordless nod of kinship with Ian McShane or Laurence Fishburne at a time.
It’s about absurdly formal violence treated with the etiquette of 18th century fine dining and the grace of Baryshnikov. There’s even a scene where John, in desperate shape, goes to Anjelica Huston for help. Outside her little decrepit door are thugs of the Eastern Promises aesthetic, muscles wrapped in tattoos, but inside she trains ballerinas who dance to Tchaikovsky (also with body art). Tats and ballet, Kung fu-Keanu and old world niceties.
So the basic gist of Parabellum is someone tells John he’s a dead man until he invokes another previous unknown, arcane, and inexplicable custom, and then he’s permitted the right to go into the next fight scene. The only real narrative conflict is the unfortunate addition of the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), a snippy middle management type who comes in to ruin the men’s fun by meting out High Table punishments to Winston (McShane) and the Bowery King (Fishburne) for helping John in the last movie. Ably played by Dillon as efficient to a fault and a stickler for rules, running counterintuitive to her hipster chic attire, she nevertheless comes off as just another millennial trying to ruin old men’s fraternal good times. Which is regrettable as she is the first major female character who appears for more than a cameo with actual power in this world—and she’s relegated to be the party pooper.
More effective for the movie, she also sics martial artist Mark Dacascos’ Zero on John, who more so than any hitman John Wick has contended with is really… just a fan who could maybe get a selfie? Using every opportunity for showdowns or shop talk at the Continental bar to fanboy out about John, Dacascos is a man of about Reeves’ age (and arguably of greater martial art ability), who follows Wick around like a Comic-Con cosplayer who just met Neo. It’s a one of the better gags that makes their fight scenes ring.
Halle Berry is also a nice addition to the franchise. Despite only showing up for an extended cameo action sequence, she gets to shine here more than she ever did in the James Bond or Kingsman franchises, and she is not so subtly made to be John’s perfect double right down to a love for dogs. Except her pooches are German Shepherds who she’s trained to be of greater badass ability than either of them. A spinoff about Berry’s Sofia running into one tricky situation after another with her killer canines launching themselves from her shoulder at bad guys probably could go for as many years as Wick.
It is still the visceral theatrics of sequences like a German Shepherd using Berry as a stepping stone to the second floor and red meat, as well as director Chad Stahelski still finding new ways to help stage Reeves’ unmistakable badassery at fight choreography while in various shades of black that suggest John Wick still works as an action junkie’s delight and will continue to do so.
Because rest assured, when John Wick: Chapter 3 ends, you should be prepared for more war. There is no finality to John’s mission, and neither peace or really a sense of closure about what the High Table exactly is and why they got to bug our boy so much. The Continental is still a global brand, Lance Riddick’s Charon is still the best concierge in cinema history, and without getting spoilery, there are reasons for John Wick to continue to star in spectacular stunt sequences with increasingly tenuous logic. Part of that is appealing, but these days I would settle to see what an off-day for him at the dog park would look like.