JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM. Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane. Directed by Chad Stahelski. 131 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong action violence).
If you’ve seen either of the previous chapters in the ‘John Wick’ franchise, then you’ll know what the name signifies: two-hours of elaborately choreographed action set in a fascinatingly elaborate criminal underworld. This third chapter, then, does exactly what it says on the can – more of the same. There’s a slight hint of diminishing returns from the franchise’s trademark non-stop gun-fu action, but fans of the earlier films will be left more than satisfied by Keanu Reeve’s return as the titular hitman.
At the end of ‘Chapter 2’, John Wick (Reeves) was rendered “excommunicado” by the High Table, the governing body of the secret underworld of assassins and services rendered unto them through which Wick moves. His crime: conducting “business” (assassinating an enemy) on the grounds of the Continental Hotel, a consecrated site within their community where members are forbidden from dealing out violence. His punishment: having a $14 million bounty placed on his head and his access to the High Table’s widespread network of services suspended. Winston (Ian McShane, in elegant and commanding form), John’s friend and the owner-manager of the Continental, gave John an hour’s amnesty before his excommunicado status came into effect. This threequel picks up as the countdown begins, with John trying desperately to get out of a New York City teeming with killers.
From its opening sequence, ‘Parabellum’ continues to push the envelope of American action cinema. Director Chad Stahelski returns at the helm of the franchise, the veteran stunt performer and coordinator once again emphasising practical stunts and fight choreography from his entire cast, captured by DP Dan Laustsen in elaborate long takes. John’s escape from New York wastes no time in getting to its first eruption of brutal violence, pitting him against a giant of a man (Boban Marjanović) in the New York Public Library. Some of John’s more creative kills will leave you slack-jawed and wincing, and this first execution is no exception. It goes without saying by this point that the ‘John Wick’ series is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. Content warning aside though, it’s the inventiveness of the set pieces that registers most strongly outside of Keanu Reeve and his castmates’ commitment to the intricately mapped out fight sequences. The first three attacks endured by John include the use of a large hardcover tome as a club, a knife fight staged inside an antique knife museum (in other words, a nigh endless supply of pointy things), and the fast-thinking weaponization of a startled horse’s ferocious kicking power. The constantly surprising action beats keep things fresh, even when the runtime, packed with shooting and brawling, extends past two hours.
The screenplay, by franchise architect Derek Kolstad alongside Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, has a simple but propulsive structure, configuring its three acts around John’s changing goals: fight his way out of New York with the help of the Director of the Ruska Roma (Anjelica Huston), locate and seek forgiveness from a shadowy High Table figure called the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui) in North Africa, then return to New York to earn said forgiveness via a high profile assassination. It’s never trying to dazzle with its plotting or dialogue, but the script plays to its strengths – the action, the fascinatingly complex secret society in which it’s set, and Reeves. With his dogged focus, grim sense of humour and physical mastery of the routines required of him, he is the bloody heart of the ‘John Wick’ franchise. I’ve read praise for this franchise to the effect of “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”, hailing the films as a return to form of sorts for American action cinema. The truth is that they never made ‘em like this. Simply put, there’s no mainstream Western movie star in memory that has displayed the skill in and the commitment to martial arts that Reeves does in these movies. While the 56-year-old Tom Cruise continues to set the standard for the world of movie stunts, Reeves – no spring chicken himself at 54 – cements himself as the elder statesman in physical performances. This character will rightly become the defining role of his career, and with a fourth chapter now greenlit for release in 2021, Reeves is showing no signs of slowing down.
The rest of the eclectic cast is good too. Halle Berry appears in much of the second act as Sofia, the proprietor of the Casablanca Continental who may be the only other character in film history to love her dogs as much as John Wick. However, her canines aren’t cute, cuddly pets like John’s; they’re highly trained and dangerous Belgian Malinois, a breed of working dogs also used by Secret Service. Injected into the action for one sequence in Casablanca, the dogs match Berry’s ferocity in the role, though her objective coolness is all her own. Asia Kate Dillon is also good as the Adjudicator sent to New York by the High Table to officiate Winston’s handling of John’s case. Their pivotal role in the unfolding plot requires a certain self-assurance that Dillon brings in spades, gliding through the lush glass and metal sets like they own them. Mark Dacascos is the other highlight among in the cast as Zero, the main assassin recruited by the Adjudicator to enforce the High Table’s rulings. The Hawaiian actor-cum-martial artist excels in his fight scenes, and he conveys Zero’s childlike admiration for Wick with a guileless and occasionally funny sincerity. The only dud in the cast is Jerome Flynn of ‘Game of Thrones’ fame, his Italian gangster Berrada little more than a stereotype and an utterly non-threatening one at that.
The subtitle of the film comes from a famous Latin adage, "Si vis pacem, para bellum," meaning "If you want peace, prepare for war." The ending of ‘Chapter 3’ certainly sets the table for all-out war. If this instalment represents the mere preparation for this promised conflict, then what’s to come must be truly astonishing. Prepare for more.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out May 16.