There is no doubt that part of the appeal of an action film is the chance to see things out of the ordinary. Like things being blown up real good, or brawls that shatter the laws of physics. And so it is with JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM, based on the graphic novel series. Though, to be honest, very few things blow up, and all the best, most ingenious brawling happens in the first half-hour or so of its two-hour and 10-minute running time. Still, it’s a rollicking good time as Keanu Reeves once again essays the man whose lost love and avenged puppy sparked a franchise.
It may have been two years since the last John Wick film, but in Wick’s world, it’s only been a matter of minutes as we catch up with him bleeding through the candy-colored neon of a rainy Manhattan night on a quest for salvation. He’s on the run after having broken the law of sanctuary at the Continental Hotel, and been given a one-hour head start by its manager, Winston (Ian McShane), before he becomes fair game for every contract killer in the world. The $14 million price on his head has the elite of that world counting down the minutes even as John parlays his last minutes of being sacrosanct into medical attention and safe passage for his loyal pooch. Wick, you recall, is a dog lover, crack shot, and quick thinker, all qualities that will come into play as his time runs out and the violence begins with a spectacular set piece set in the New York Public Library, where we are suitably dazzled by the way a book is weaponized before being returned to its proper place on the shelf. One barely has time to let that settle in before Wick weaponizes a horse into taking out a would-be assassin. And then he does it again.
Here’s the bad news. The rest of the action sequences will essentially boil down to many people being shot in the head and/or skewered as John uses his stunning focus and preternatural agility to take down all comers. It’s a shame, because the choreography involved is nicely done with whiffs of the franchise’s signature mordant humor. It’s an even bigger shame because John’s nemesis, Zero, a cat-loving sushi chef with unusual knife skills, is played by Mark Dacascos, who is poetry in motion. Dacoscos also evinces the right blend of gobsmacked fanboy and smooth killer when Zero confesses that John is his idol.
The overarching theme of this installment is consequences, and that’s done in the person of The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), a black-clad emissary sent from the High Table to punish those who helped Wick when they weren’t supposed to. This may be a violent world, but it is one with strict rules, making it a puckish parable about the violent hearts that beat beneath the veneer of civilization so elegantly rendered in the sophisticated premises of the Continental itself. As for why the general population fails to register the mayhem around them as bullets fly, bones, break, and bodies fall into lifeless heaps in Grand Central Station or the ci-mentioned library, that’s speculation for another day. As is the deeper metaphor of Lance Reddick’s Charon, the coolly efficient and pointedly polite concierge at the Continental, equally adept at providing 5-star amenities as well as the appropriate firepower for any given situation. Of all the characters in this alternate universe, I find him the most intriguing, and in his own way, the most dangerous.
But I digress.
Wick’s quest to return to the good graces of the High Table brings him to an odd assortment of characters, including The Director (Anjelica Huston moving gamely into the Maria Ouspenskaya phase of her career), who gives him safe passage to Casablanca, and Sofia (Halle Berry), the manager of that city’s Continental who has a history with John and two dogs that are at least as smart as 90% of the humans. It also affords John the opportunity to wander the vast desert expanses of North Africa in his trademark black suit, an optic that sums up the tone this film, like its predecessors, effortlessly strikes. Meanwhile back in New York, The Adjudicator is making her imperious rounds in a singularly humorless fashion as she gives notice to Winston and to the pigeon-loving, bombastic Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) that they have a week to put their affairs in order. Neither of them takes it well.
Points for such nice touches has having The Adjudicator shod on low, eminently sensible heels, and for the artful product placement. A bottle of soda becomes an integral part of the color scheme, a much appreciated touch. It’s part and parcel of the oneiric quality in every shot that makes bizarre sense of a world in which everyone will, eventually, try to kill you, and who will fail only because you are somehow impervious to that which would cause anyone else to shuffle off this mortal coil. Suspension of belief, without it, nothing else matters, not even the breakneck pace at which this flick vibrates. It carries the action during the unnecessarily chatty Sofia interlude in Morocco. Fortunately, Berry flirts with actually chewing the scenery, giving an otherwise dead spot some texture, if not actual life.
As pure fantasy, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM works beyond being short on story with its stylish, sumptuous visuals and Reeves himself. He is a minimalist in front of the camera, making for a pointed contrast to the other elements in which he works, the voice inflected just enough to make a simple pronouncement a promise (or threat), and a jest an ironic remove that is almost, but not quite, a wink at the audience that lets us all in on the joke.