Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, and Ian McShane
MPAA rating: R for pervasive strong violence, and some language
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes
by Dan Scully
The downside of the John Wick trilogy is that each film is so impeccably crafted that it’s hard not to develop resentment toward the glut of poorly shot, hyper-cut action schlock that passes for mainstream cinema these days. No, I’m not about to be one of those “they don’t make them like they used to” types but we have reached a point where, unless a film is expressly interested in showcasing stuntwork, we can assume that much of it will be unintelligible, merely suggesting an action sequence while hiding the fact the one hasn’t occurred. In things like Captain America: Civil War — perhaps the most recent example of action which has been cut to indecipherable pieces — the factory farmed nature of the Marvel machine is to blame. With that much star power to corral for a film that has a strict deadline, there’s simply not much time for rehearsal. Especially not when it comes to the action. Better to get the footage and worry about how it looks later, right?
Enter Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. Both have worked in the stunt business for years, with Stahelski even having worked as Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in the Matrix trilogy. These guys know how action should look, and when they made their collective directorial debut with John Wick back in 2014, they made it clear that the best thrills are crafted in pre-production. Riffing on the fighting styles put forth by things like The Raid, Ong Bak, and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, they created a new brand of action — one which marries well-choreographed fisticuffs, car chases, and gun battles with dynamic camera work designed to highlight the ferocious veracity of what’s happening on screen. In addition, John Wick wasn’t just a stunt showcase either. It had a compelling plot, set in a truly unique world. Stahelski doubled down on this with John Wick: Chapter 2, a sequel of impossibly high quality that enhances the action while expounding upon the established universe. Bigger guns, crazier setpieces, and an even more distinct style turned John Wick into more than just a beloved character. He became an icon.
Chapter 2 has one of the best sequel teases ever, in which a now disgraced Wick is given one hour of leniency before (literally) every hitman/woman in the world is given free reign to collect the unprecedented bounty on his head. John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum picks up about 40 minutes into that hour as our titular antihero makes the most of his free pass...before having to dish out an insane amount of carnage.
Conventional wisdom dictates that this third entry should be the point where the series begins to drop off, and while it is certainly the weakest entry, the discrepancy is minuscule to the point of vanishing. In a vacuum, Parabellum is a stunning achievement. It’s also the best trilogy-capper one could hope for. The action is, once again, shot with clarity and the story expands in clever, organic ways.
We are thrust back into the underworld of murder-for-hire, localized around The Continental: a hotel in which all business is off limits. The thing is, in giving Wick a head start on his bounty, hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane, positively dripping with verve) now has to contend with a cleanup crew led by a character simply named “The Adjudicator” (Asia Kate Dillon). The Adjudicator is tasked with making sure proper punishments are doled out to all who have helped Wick while in exile, and this process effectively prevents Wick from easily obtaining further assistance in escaping his fate.
Amongst his, erm, partners in crime, we find Sofia (Halle Berry) a high-ranking hitwoman who owes a debt to Wick, and uses her supremely capable dogs to pay it. Lance Reddick is back as Charon, the concierge of The Continental, and this time around he isn’t relegated to the sidelines. It’s a good thing too: Reddick looks great behind a gigantic gun. Returning also is Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King, and even though the Matrix reunion aspect of his role has long since faded, he’s having more fun than Christian Bale at a brooding competition. Fishburne goes big with every syllable he speaks and it’s positively infectious. A small cameo from Anjelica Huston gives us a cryptic insight into Wick’s background while also giving the legendary actress a chance to ooze charisma.
The real standout performance, however, goes to Mark Dacascos as Zero, the leader of The Adjudicator’s henchmen. He’s John Wick’s biggest fan and, if not for his assignment, who knows? Maybe they could have been friends. But as it is, the two gun-fu masters must come to blows. A lot of blows. Like, more blows than you could ever imagine being come to.
Parabellum balances strong character work, plot, and stunt showmanship in a way that feels impossible for the third entry in what should be a dismissible action franchise. The ante has been upped with all three elements, and it’s here where the film stumbles a bit. On the one hand, the expansive plot, breakneck pace, and insanely creative action beats are all on point (wait until you see what Wick does with a duo of horses), but on the other, Parabellum shows its cards early. The action peaks in a first act knife/hatchet fight set in a weapons store, and while the subsequent thrills are always engaging and awesome, they do fall short of the majesty on display in the opening 40 minutes or so. I do suspect that repeat viewings will soften this criticism, as a more passive consumption of the film could prove to be less exhausting. But to that end, a repeat viewing is something anyone who loves this stuff will be eager to seek out, myself included.
Keanu Reeves has made it pretty clear that he doesn’t plan to return to this character anytime soon, and if this is where the franchise indeed comes to an end, color me satisfied. The conclusion to John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum marks a strong arc completion for Wick as well as his world...but leaves enough threads hanging juuuuuuuust in case more people need to die in gruesomely impressive ways