Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic
John. Wick. Baba Yaga. The man you send to kill the boogeyman. A former assassin who got sucked back into the criminal world because someone stole his car and killed the dog that his dead wife had got him to help him grieve. Who knew when we were first introduced to this simple but effective action movie premise that we were going to be treated to the best action franchise of the decade? John Wick set the stage, but John Wick: Chapter 2 took it to a whole other level in 2017. That film expanded the horizons of the world we were introduced to in the first film. Now, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum has arrived and while it does expand the scope of the Wide World of Wick some, it is more interested in exploring the studio space that has been created for it. No, really Baby, explore the space!
Chapter 3 picks up mere moments after the conclusion of the second film, with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) on the run with one hour until Winston’s (Ian McShane) “excommunicado” order goes into effect. In a world where the criminal world is not an underworld but really more of an overworld, seemingly everyone in the city is an assassin waiting to get their hands on John and the $14 million bounty on his head. John manages to fight his way out of New York City and to Morocco, connecting with Sophia (Halle Berry), an old associate, in hopes of finding a way to explain his actions to the High Table and find a way to live. Meanwhile, back in NYC, an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) arrives from the High Table to bring to heel Winston, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and the Director (Anjelica Houston) for their aid to John Wick, enlisting the help of an assassin name Zero (Mark Dacascos) to do this.
What makes the John Wick films so enjoyable is that they are purely distilled action. The stories are not overly complex; in fact, there is just enough plot to carry the movies from glorious action scene to glorious action scene. As entertaining as a Mission: Impossible or Fast & the Furious action movie can be, the plots can be quite involved (M:I) or absurd (F&F) almost to the point of distraction. Or detraction. John Wick is stripped down to the essentials. In this way, it is akin to something like Mad Max: Fury Road. What you’re left with is an action movie extract; something highly concentrated and incredibly potent.
Also vital is the performance of Keanu Reeves as John Wick. He is perfect as Wick, the hitman of few words who lets his guns, his knives, and his hands do most of the talking. Keanu gets a lot of flack for his acting and some of the roles he has chosen over the years, but now in his 50s he seems to know his lane. More importantly, John Wick is a character that maximizes his talents and minimizes his weaknesses. At this point John Wick is right up there with Neo, Johnny Utah, Jack Traven, and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan as his most iconic roles, and it’s possible that Wick has surpassed all of them.
Similar to the previous entries in the Wick Saga, the film is broken into three sections that more or less feature one extended fight sequence. Personally, the first one was the highlight of the film for me. After an encounter with one assassin (portrayed by none other than NBA giant Boban Marjanovic) attempting to jump the gun in the New York Public Library, John has a crazy journey through New York City where he fights multiple people in the street, in an antique weaponry museum, and eventually on the back of a horse. The museum is just a treat as he disassembles several old guns to create a custom one that fits the bullets available to him and ends up engaging numerous assassins in the building with knives and swords and other sharp objects. Let it not be said that choreography is only for musicals. This action is expertly choreographed, and it is dazzling to behold.
The middle portion of the film features Halle Berry’s Sofia and her two dogs fighting alongside John as he attempts to get in contact with someone who could change his fortunes. Berry, the two dogs, are totally game for the action and hold their own, with the dogs being a genuine highlight of the film. The final act features an extended battle back in New York City, in a familiar location for fans of the previous two movies, and builds to a final confrontation between John and Zero. One of Zero’s henchmen, by the way, happens to be played by Yayan Ruhian, who action aficionados will recognize from The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 (two movies that belong in the discussion along with the John Wick movies for best action of the decade). I geeked out at the idea of The Raid crossing over in the Wickiverse).
The action is incredibly and unapologetically violent, and often bathed in beautiful neon backdrops (this movie will look amazing in 4K). John Wick leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake in some of the most creative ways I’ve ever seen. There is a bluntness and practicality to a lot of the hand to hand combat that goes on in this movie. It’s not cartoony action, but it’s also not a real world action film either. What it is, though, is a realistic world because it has a narrative logic and consistency to it so that this overtly criminal world doesn’t completely strain credulity. The only time this really came into question for me was when John Wick enters the desert hoping to speak with someone known as The Elder. By the end of the film, as much as I enjoyed it, I did begin to wonder for the first time about the long-term sustainability of this as a franchise. When they keep ratcheting things up, could it reach a point where the story spins too wildly out of control?
I unabashedly love these movies. I would probably still rank John Wick: Chapter 2 as the clear-cut best of the bunch, but John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is pretty much right on par with John Wick. I worry a bit that they may have upped the stakes a bit to the point where things may start to get unwieldy in the just-announced John Wick 4, but we can cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, let’s just bask in the greatness of the undisputed king of action, John Wick. To paraphrase the slogan for LeBron “King” James, we are all Wicknesses.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars