John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
If you want peace, prepare for war.
The Latin word parabellum, which translates to ‘prepare for war,’ couldn’t be a more fitting subtitle for this latest John Wick installment, which pits the entire criminal underworld against one man. If you’re new to the whole Wickian story, this neo-noir action series is based around Keanu Reeves’ titular ex-hitman, who finds himself back in the game after some reckless Russian mobsters slip up by slaying his dog, with Wick forced out of retirement to exact his revenge on those who’d wronged him; little do they know they’d awakened a man so dangerous he’d been nicknamed ‘Baba Yaga.’
For those just tuning in, super-assassin Wick breaks a cardinal rule at the end of 2017’s Chapter 2 by killing an adversary in New York’s Continental Hotel — a site marked as neutral ground for gangsters and governed by the iron-fisted High Table — and gets his membership revoked, finding himself ‘excommunicado’ with a $14 million price tag stamped on his head. Parabellum opens with the expelled Wick hobble-jogging across the rain-soaked neon streets of Times Square, trying to make the most of the hour-long head start — given to him by Continental enforcer/ long-time associate Winston (Ian McShane) — before the waves of contract killers come flooding in, trying to cash in on the hefty bounty. With John now an international target, everyone is after a piece of the prize, from innocent-looking street dwellers to NYC vendors, the flick bursting to life with a crazy clash in a library, where Wick dispatches a towering assailant (played by Serbian basketball player Boban Marjanović) with a vintage tome.
It turns out that Keanu’s master marksman is going to need more than just his ‘Fu’ skills if he wishes to make it out of this ordeal alive, as the High Table’s hipster-looking ‘Adjudicator’ (Asia Kate Dillon) is called in to ensure that Wick is punished for his actions and that everyone who’s helped him is reprimanded. What ensues is a sprawling action extravaganza that stretches from the wet streets of New York City to the sandy dunes of the Casablanca desert, with Wick using anything he can find — knives, guns, axes and even horses — to take out goons (and John takes out a lot of goons); a bloodthirsty battle literally erupts every time he steps into a new location.
Slickly directed, once again, by stuntman-turned-filmmaker Chad Stahelski, and penned by creator Derek Kolstad, along with Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, Parabellum doesn’t offer anything new when it comes to narrative, writers simply deepening the already established mythology of the, dare I say it, Wick-iverse. What really shines here is the ultraviolent teeth-clenching action, moviemakers upping the ante when it comes to breathtaking stunt work, bloody knuckle beat downs and Chris Costa-esque gunplay — Reeves basically spends the entire movie using weird secret society customs (blood pacts and crucifixes) to stay alive long enough to move from one elaborately choreographed fight scene to the next.
Seamlessly incorporating adrenaline-fueled combat with sleek GCI, bereft of any jarring jump cuts, Stahelski manages to create some of the most memorable action moments ever featured in a big budget Hollywood film. There’s a death-defying Villainess (2017) inspired motorcycle-katana skirmish, which takes place along a bare Manhattan bridge (that had me on the edge of my seat), a visceral knife-fight in a Chinatown antiques store, and the highlight, an inventive set piece that sees John fight alongside Halle Berry and her two trained canines as they try to escape a modish lair, this sequence showcasing their formidable hard-hitting badassery. Just on Berry, although only popping up in an extended cameo as Sofia, the head of Morocco’s Continental branch — who owes ‘Monsieur’ Wick a favor — she gets to do more ass-whooping here than she did in movies like 2002’s Die Another Day or Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) — I don’t know about you, but I’d be more than open to seeing a spin-off based on the character.
Each action sequence is elevated by the excellent work of returning production designer Kevin Kavanaugh and the superb cinematography of Dan Laustsen, The Shape of Water (2017), who work together to create some truly graceful/ balletic imagery; the final skirmish held inside the Continental’s multilevel glass gallery space is both beautiful and brutal.
As you’d expect Keanu Reeves — who’s well versed in various forms of kung fu — is terrific here, and even at the age of 54, looks stellar whether he’s crushing bones in a tattered suit or shooting enemies square in the head at close range; just like his Matrix films, he’s a man of very little words, yet still possesses that ‘cool factor.’ Heck, we even get a fun nod to 1999’s The Matrix, with Reeves’ ‘Guns, lots of guns’ line. Reeves’ Matrix trilogy co-star Laurence Fishburne delivers another solid turn as the ‘all seeing’ Bowery King, who controls the city’s clandestine network of homeless informants and is targeted for punishment by the bureaucratic organization running the show. It’s also great to finally see Lance Riddick’s concierge, Charon, step out from behind the desk to get in on the action, taking out swarms of High Table insurgents in the flick’s final act.
Elsewhere, ’90s martial arts star Mark Dacascos, Only the Strong (1993), is a hoot as blade-wheedling sushi chef Zero, who’s recruited to eliminate Wick, even though he happens to be a big fan of his work; Dacascos portrays the balled-headed antagonist with a delightful sense of cheekiness, injecting some light comedy into the proceedings, playing the character like a starstruck fan who’s just met his idol. Anjelica Huston, The Addams Family (1991), also crops up in a small role as the Director — she’s a figure from John’s past, who just so happens to be a member of the High Table — Huston’s matriarch running a ballet academy in Harlem, where she trains orphans to become assassins. Look out for Gotham’s Robin Lord Taylor as a tattooed-and-pierced administrator working at the switchboard facility where dozens of Suicide Girl-looking receptionists monitor Wick’s bounty, as well as cameos from martial artists such as Tiger Hu Chen, Man of Tai Chi (2013), and Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman from The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2014).
Raising the bar in terms of high-octane thrills and violently graphic kills, John Wick: Chapter 3 is another solid addition to the highly stylized shoot em’ up series, which, outside of Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible films, remains the best action franchise going around these days. An ‘episode’ rather than an outright conclusion, it’s clear that Mr. Wick isn’t finished boosting his body count yet — and who knows, by the time he’s through, he may have killed more people than Hitler, Stalin, and Mao!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie