Five years ago, Keanu Reeves, pushing the half-century mark, but looking – and more importantly, performing like a super-fit, near-invulnerable 40-year-old – returned to the action genre he made his own more than two decades ago (e.g., Point Break, Speed, The Matrix Trilogy). As a result, he turned into one of the most unlikely movie stars of his generation (or any generation for that matter). Little has changed since then. Rather than trying his hand at another big-budget, sci-fi-actioner doomed to failure amid outsized expectations, Reeves chose an entirely different, ultimately far more successful path. The first entry in the series, John Wick was a super-lean, super-efficient, minimalist action-thriller that placed a premium on physical stunts, many, if not most performed by Reeves himself, over logic- and physics-defying CG-enhanced effects. Then and now, John Wick was an anomaly, a glitch (so to speak) in the business matrix. While it didn’t become a mega-hit at the box office, the investment-to-return ratio was more than enough to get a sequel into production three years later, John Wick 2: Chapter 2, and a third entry, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, just two years later.
John Wick’s initial success can be traced back not just to the expertly choreographed action scenes, or his Zen-like performance style or graceful, acrobatic physicality (all points in Wick’s favor, of course), but on a story-based simplicity that unfolded like a live-action adaptation of a newly discovered videogame: Wick moved from location to location, dispatching hordes of henchmen in colorfully brutal ways, each time moving both laterally through and vertically up a criminal organization until he reached his quarry and the obligatory Big Bad/Big Boss. Each new location and set-up offered former-stunt-choreographers-turned-co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch the opportunity to put their decades of stunt experience to expert use. With Reeves’ physicality front-and-center, Stahelski and Leitch could – and did – build increasingly complex, character-revealing and character-defining set pieces that left moviegoers surprised, shocked, and awed by what they were seeing and hearing. Then and now, it was like nothing else released by the major studios in multiplexes.
Where John Wick wasted minimal time on world-building – it was set, more or less, in a recognizably real world nearly identical to our own minus the high-body count no one seemed to notice or care about – it still left enough clues or hints behind of a much larger, more complex world of assassins, shadow organizations, and arcane rules and regulations that Reeves’ titular character tried to escape before the key events of the first film, the untimely death of his wife and the even more untimely death of the dog she gifted him, spurred Wick to reluctantly take back the titleas the world’s deadliest assassin with a preference for fatal head shots. The sequel fleshed out the so-called “Wickiverse,” a ruling council led by the heads of regional organizations, the “High Table,” million-dollar contracts on rule-breakers, and probably the most important rule of all: “sanctuary” at High Table- approved and run hotels for guild assassins. Wick broke the rule, killing his adversary, a member of the High Table, at the Continental, leaving him “excommunicado,” an outcast with a $14-million-dollar contract on his head.
Despite two, real-world years between entries, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum opens moments after John Wick 2 ends, with a battered, bloodied, and bruised Wick escaping through the rain-drenched, neon-lit streets of a hyper-stylized New York City, last hour of freedom ticking down before the contract on his life becomes active. Wick, however, has an escape plan in mind or at least a potential way out of his predicament that involves an old associate/boss, the Director (Angelica Huston), passage out of New York, and a reunion with another associate, Sophia (Halle Berry), in Morocco, and a potential way out, if not of the assassin’s life, then of the contract on his life. Every step, of course, involves a bloody, gory confrontation with fellow assassins eager to get their hands on that $14-million-dollar contract regardless of Wick’s Angel of Death reputation or his impressively high body count over just several days.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum expands the world of John Wick and the High Table (the phrase “under the table” comes up repeatedly to describe perpetual servitude), but the biggest addition comes in the form of the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon, Billons), a High Table official who arrives in New York City to enforce the rigid rules of the High Table: Anyone who’s offered assistance to Wick, including the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and the Continental’s manager, Winston (Ian McShane), and the head concierge, Charon (Lance Reddick), must suffer the consequences of their actions. The Adjudicator also brings Zero (Mark Dacascos), a High Table-approved assassin almost Wick’s equal in the killing department, to hunt down Wick as well.
Once again interweaving an increasingly deeper dive into the Wickiverse with elaborately choreographed action scenes, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum delivers set pieces that individually and collectively reset the standard for action filmmaking (American edition). From a brutal, if beautifully choreographed set piece set inside the New York Public Library to a literal knife fight inside a gun and knife shot, and to horse stalls in a New York carriage house, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum delivers something close to action-film nirvana. And that’s not even mentioning the central set piece involving Wick, Sophie, her two dogs, and an extremely unlucky group of henchmen in Morocco. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum hits a bit of a post-Morocco snag story-wise, but picks up again in spectacular fashion over the final 30 minutes as Winston’s three-story, glass-and-steel office becomes the site for Wick’s expected face-off with Zero.