4 out of 5 stars.
The title of the third film in the John Wick franchise, “John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum,” sounds less like an enigma when you realize that para bellum is a Latin phrase that translates to “prepare for war.” It’s a fitting statement not just for the beginning of the film, in which John prepares to go on the run, but also for the entire arc of the movie and its conclusion, which sets up an inevitable fourth chapter. But sandwiched between those conflicts is the highly-stylized and gorgeously choreographed action sequences we’ve come to expect from the series, which continually tops itself, leaving the viewer to wonder: just what else is there left for John Wick to do?
Directed once again by Chad Stahelski, “Parabellum” picks up mere hours after the conclusion of Chapter 2. After killing someone on the grounds of New York’s Continental Hotel—a safe haven for assassins working for the organization known as the High Table—John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is made ex communicado, with a $14 million bounty placed on his head. But John wants to live so he can keep the love and memory of his deceased wife Helen alive, so he starts calling in favors from those who owe him so he can erase the bounty that has assassins all over the world chasing after him.
But this is John Wick we’re talking about. As Winston, the manager of the Continental (played by Ian McShane), states at the beginning of the movie, everyone is going to be after John with a price on his head that high—and that makes the odds just about even. John can certainly take a beating, but he is practically invincible, a legend among the ranks of the High Table. He uses his skills and ingenuity to get the upper hand in any fight, whether it’s with fists, guns, knives, pencils, books, on horseback, on a motorcycle—you name it, these movies have done it. “Parabellum” starts off at a sprint and doesn’t let John—or the audience—take a breath for quite some time, as we see John preparing in the hour before the price is put on his head, and then getting into an assortment of crazy fights as assassins pursue him all over NYC. Yes, it’s over-the-top, bloody, and occasionally cringe-worthy violence, but it’s still grounded in reality. Maybe part of that is due to the insane number of times the action halts to depict John actually reloading his weapon (really, what other movies do that?), but the pure physicality of the action and lack of CGI explosions and effects is what really makes it effective. It’s clear that the actors, stunt performers, and filmmakers are all incredibly dedicated to making top notch action sequences—some of the fights are mesmerizing and beautiful, almost like a dance. Admittedly, even this movie reaches a point where some of the extended action scenes become rather deadening, particularly later in the film after John meets up with fellow assassin Sofia (Halle Berry). But if you’re a fan of action movies, you’d be hard-pressed to find another film in the genre that matches the quality of this one.
This film is much heavier on action than dialogue, but it makes the dialogue that it does have count. The actors are solid across the board, even if some of the supporting players—like Asia Kate Dillon’s Adjudicator, Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, and Mark Dacascos’ assassin Zero – lean into their exaggerated roles a bit too heavily. Among those joining the cast is Anjelica Huston, who plays a High Table member and figure from John’s past known as the Director. Berry is a welcome addition as a former High Table assassin who is as fierce and skilled as John (and also one of the few female characters in this franchise who isn’t terrible), and who prioritizes protecting her family (dogs included) above all else. Reeves’ performance, meanwhile, continues to sell John Wick as one of the most appealing action heroes in film history. He isn’t shallow, or working under some ludicrous high ideals, and he isn’t a macho hero in the vein of, say, Dwayne Johnson, despite his insane skills. Rather, he is emotionally vulnerable; bad people hurt him when he was still grieving, and now he is getting payback. His feelings drive the action, and Reeves brings a quiet ferocity to his performance that works perfectly for the character.
Throughout, “Parabellum” is peppered with dark humor while also continuing to delve deeper and deeper into the workings of the High Table. The film at first feels like the beginning of a conclusion, but it’s really more of a set up for what will surely be his biggest battle to date, while also managing to be its own movie. With this movie coming up with increasingly intense and over-the-top action scenes—a times coming dangerously close to parodying itself—it’s hard to imagine just how much longer the filmmakers can keep this premise going. But if they continue to match the quality of the other films in the franchise, I think I—and many other viewers—are going to be very happy with the results.
Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated R.