The return of a relentless film franchise

Director Chad Stahleski continues to hone his unique, avant garde action style — and to put Keanu Reeves through the wringer — in John Wick 3: Parabellum.

At this point, the John Wick movies represent one of the most improbable runaway successes in the current cinematic landscape. From one mildly clever yet aesthetically dubious programmer, it has grown into a behemoth franchise that shows no signs of stopping. Rarely has a film series been so closely made in its protagonist’s image, a confused and somewhat unconvinced showcase of badassery almost entirely carried by superlative craft and confidence. There is no reason why the story of John Wick should withstand an entire feature, much less three; while Parabellum, the third chapter in the saga, does seem to have difficulty catching its breath, it’s remarkably simpatico with the chapters that preceded it.

Parabellum opens mere seconds after the second opus, with professional assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves) having been made excommunicado from the High Table, the worldwide assassin organization that keeps all assassin business under wraps. That means anyone who takes Wick down will pick up a cool $15-million. The whole mess sees Wick beating/killing hundreds of dudes in order to find a way out, which he sees coming from an old mentor (Anjelica Huston) who will send him to relative safety in Morocco. Meanwhile, an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) from high up comes to New York to try to sort things out with Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the assassin-friendly Continental hotel, and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne).

Suffice to say that John Wick 3: Parabellum does not diverge too much from the previous incarnations in the franchise: it’s 130 minutes of bone-snapping, head-exploding carnage that sees Wick pop off all over the world, putting the hurt on assassins in a myriad of original and crunchy ways. I should probably rephrase that: it’s about 100 minutes of bone-snapping and head-exploding carnage and about half an hour of flabby exposition in the middle. It’s one of the unfortunate by-products of such a stylized action opus in the 2010s: it seems the filmmakers have decided that audiences want the kind of complex world-building they find in other franchises, and so the third John Wick film becomes the first one to become overly concerned with the politics and the rules of the universe.

It shouldn’t really be that much of a concern, especially considering that the films have always leaned in to the patently ridiculous nature of the world they inhabit, but Parabellum’s weakest moments come when it attempts to add additional levels to its already-complicated-enough world. On one hand, it’s remarkable how this third installment’s style continues what the second installment put forth; on the other, it’s hard to deny that Wick’s extended soul-searching trip to Morocco (where he teams up with an old friend, played by Halle Berry, and takes out approximately 700 desert warrior dudes) detracts from the usual John Wick 1-2 punch of a sad man in a suit beating guys up in the rain. Variety, in John Wick’s case, is not the spice of life.

Nevertheless, John Wick 3: Parabellum has undeniable pleasures to offer. If John Wick 2 represented a quantum leap forward in terms of visual style and borderline avant-garde action direction, this third opus is more about keeping that momentum going. It gets its best and most ingenious scene (a fight through a literal armory) out of the way early, but it also hits upon many of the same mise-en-scène decisions as the previous installment: the psychedelic digitized backgrounds, the over-the-top aesthetics that pair corny on-screen text with Mercedes commercial framing, the almost complete lack of one-liners, the overt nods to video-game mechanics, the cute dog…

Once again Wick is the most reluctant of badasses, and the countless blows he’s taken up to this point have rendered him no less lethal… but somewhat more vulnerable. One of the great delights of John Wick 3: Parabellum is the glee director Chad Stahleski takes in putting Reeves through the wringer. Though he always has the upper hand, it can take going face-first through a dozen glass display cases before he gets a grip on the situation. The action scenes are, as expected, astounding. As Stahleski moves further and further away from overt Hong Kong worship, he moves into something that’s increasingly unique and singular. It’s unquestionably more of the same — perhaps even the textbook definition of it — but when it’s this much fun, who am I to complain? ■

John Wick 3: Parabellum opens in theatres on Friday, May 17. Watch the trailer here: