John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, directed by Chad Stahelski, continues to build a thoroughly entertaining and steadily growing world in a way the action genre has rarely seen before. Film buffs may argue that The Wachowskis’s Matrix series was the last to meld mythos with adrenaline-pumping action, but those films eventually crumbled under the weight of their self-importance. Stahelski continues to display an impressive ability to slowly and deliberately enrich the almost alternative reality this franchise has invented. He does all this while adding in the most intense and hard-hitting action sequences this series has yet to see. In all ways, Chapter 3 takes the best elements of John Wick: Chapter 2 and tightens them up to continue and improve the best franchise currently being produced.
Chapter 3 picks up right where Chapter 2 left off—The death contract on Wick (Keanu Reeves) has doubled from 7 to 14 million, a bounty no assassin could pass up. After committing a rule-breaking act on the grounds of the Continental, a hotel that provides sanctuary for assassins, Wick is left with no haven in the world. He is pursued not only by every killer looking to cash in on the bounty, but also by hitmen hired by the High Table, the organization that governs the assassin world. Wick must seek assistance from those he helped back in his days as a then-heartless mercenary if he wants to survive.
Chapter 2 was an entertaining if not bloated expansion to the taut and adventurous original. It doubled down on style, incorporating at times an almost science-fiction aesthetic, along the lines of the neon red-tinted Blade Runner. The constant, controlled twists and turns of the unpredictable environment felt more natural than in the first film. The violent world of John Wick relies on the public displays of execution to seem like everyday occurrences that passersby of New York don’t even question (“Omw. F train rerouted. Assassins fighting on the PATH. There in 10.”) At times, Chapter 2 was slightly burdened by the progressive world-building. While it is excellent that Chapter 2 was not just action sequence after action sequence, that film felt like it needed to stop and explain everything too often.
Action sequences were often limited, devolving into “Gun fu” fights riddled with too many CGI headshots. Chapter 3’s action sequences take the best parts of the previous film’s battles and continue to add new and exciting elements. It gives Wick far more altercations where he doesn’t rely on his accurate but dry marksmanship and has him improvise as only the man who famously killed “three men with a pencil” could. Chapter 3 continues to make these epic battles, both exhilarating and believable enough. Wisely, Stahelski still avoids the use of fantastical weaponry. This franchise has no interest in being “the R-rated Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Whether thwarting certain death by weaponizing everyday objects or even manipulating water physics, audiences will no doubt laugh, applaud, or grimace. Often all these reactions will occur all in the same scene.
Stahelski also continues to make stylish and beautiful movies with a modest budget, compared to most action franchises. Although the allusions to Blade Runner are still present, such as making New York City look like a futuristic melding with Tokyo, they seem more natural and understated. The fights are primarily well-lit, unlike the previous films which often obscured them. In a post-Matrix and post-The Raid cinematic landscape, the fact that John Wick continues to find new inventive and playful ways to dispatch baddies is astonishing. The fight sequences play like a deadly ballet (a skill that Chapter 3 cleverly acknowledges), dazzling and delighting viewers.
Keanu Reeves continues to shine in what is quickly becoming his best role to date. He isn’t given the dramatic heights present in the previous films, as this film isn’t as much about grieving as it is about just surviving. While still laying waste to every attacker he meets, Reeves completely sells how tired Wick is from having to run from the world’s best killers for multiple days. This film, even more so than the previous installments, relies well on purposeful — but never obtrusive — supporting performances. Halle Berry is fantastic as Sofia, a murderess with two trained attack dogs, from whom Wick seeks assistance. There was initial worry that Sofia’s character might just be “spin-off material” inserted to help a role who doesn’t need back-up (I’m looking at you, Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds in Blade Trinity). With one expertly-delivered death stare, Berry shows that she not only wholly belongs in the Wick-verse, but that we would watch the hell out of her no doubt upcoming film. In her action sequences, she elicits a growling demeanor that suggests what Pam Grier would have pulled off in today’s action films. Because Berry’s career has been beleaguered by mediocre roles relying solely on her beauty and not fully tapping into her talent, it is great to see her finally getting the powerful part she has always deserved.
Much like Chapter 2, Chapter 3 could have used a little editing. At 130 minutes, the relentless action doesn’t quite get as overwhelming and somewhat numbing as the second film, but it comes very close. During the showdown, audience members were briefly checking their phones. Maybe that is because of the slight disinterest in the final boss battle, but more likely it is due to sensory fatigue. Still, it is hard to say which scenes would need to be cut, an issue that the filmmakers also no doubt felt.
Chapter 3 expands and improves on Chapter 2 in ways that seemed almost impossible. It proves once again that adventurous mid-budget R-rated action films deserve a place in cinema alongside the superhero of the moment. Chapter 3 has completely wiped away the “much better than it should be” nature of the first John Wick and has now set the barometer that all adventurous action films should be compared to. When the credits roll, the only emotions felt are the overwhelming excitement for the next installment and the need to see Chapter 3 again to relive the exhilaration.