The John Wick movies are what you might call coffee-table action films, the kind where a lot of dudes (and ladies, and gender-nonconforming individuals) get thrown through expensive-looking coffee tables.
John Wick was a genuine surprise four-and-a-half years ago, a revenge flick with just enough intrigue around the margins of stuntmen-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch's proprietary "gun fu" melees to make you lean in. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad understood that exposition is a killer as lethal as any character he'd dreamt up.
Keanu Reeves's retired-assassin antihero was in mourning for his recently deceased wife, because of course he was. But the movie worked better if you thought of him as a creature of pure abstraction, the progeny of a thousand genre films (and a few dozen art-house ones) that had merged, perhaps in some lusciously shot explosion of a video store, and become sentient. As with James Bond, Mr. Wick's first and last names were spoken aloud too many times by too many different characters for him be believed as a real person within this fiction, though it was sort of sweet how Ian McShane's character insisted on calling him "Jonathan."
Its 2017 follow-up gave us more explanation of how this shadow economy of killers operates — too much. And the new John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum ladles on still more, threatening to collapse the whole shebang-bang-bang under the weight of its diminishing-returns world-building.
It all looks amazing, of course. (As on Chapter 2, Stahelski is flying solo here, his partner Leitch having moved on to lesser pastures.) Telephone operators dressed in Prohibition-era clothing — but sleeveless, and with a lot more tattoos — issue kill orders via century-old switchboards, mechanical typewriters, and 1980s green-text CRT computers. Every neon sign in Manhattan admires its reflection in every puddle. And Wick seeks solace in the Tarkovsky Theatre, a ballet/murder conservatory run by Anjelica Huston, who bellows "Art is pain!" while in the foreground of the frame we see a dancer rip off her own toenail.
There's another new character called The Adjudicator (played by Asia Kate Dillon), who is sort of like the H.R. Department of the Society for Professional Assassins, which is here called the The High Table, because you would not pay $15 to see a movie about the nefarious machinations of the Senior Executive Steering Committee.
The Adjudicator cannot abide that some members—specifically McShane and Laurence Fishburne — aided and abetted Wick in the last movie, after he'd been declared, in one of the series' other hilariously repeated words, "excommunicado." He'd broken the Prime Directive of the assassin biz by killing an enemy on the premises of The Continental, the assassin safe-space that has branches in all the world's most gloriously cinematic cities.
About those exotic locales: Chapter 2 sent Wick to Rome; Chapter 3 sets its entire second act — a spectacular diversion involving new ally Halle Berry and her two exceptionally athletic Malinois (they have their own bulletproof vests!)— in Casablanca. One can't help but notice that 007 went to both those cities in his most recent adventure, SPECTRE. Which came out in 2015, the same year Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation staged two of its best set pieces in Casablanca and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. shot in Rome. Maybe they're offering tax breaks.
Though Parabellum picks up just minutes after Chapter 2 ended, with every covert killer in the Big Apple on to Wick's scent, his motivation has become hopelessly muddled. He's already avenged his adorable beagle Daisy and retrieved his stolen '69 Mustang. I suppose it's just instinct that compels him to try to survive, but he spends a big chunk of this movie — which runs a half-hour longer than the 2014 original — trying to fight his way back into the killers' guild he was once permitted to leave. (Do we think John Wick ever told his wife that he'd murdered many hundreds of people before they married? Including, famously, three men in a bar with a pencil? Discuss amongst yourselves.)
It's easy enough, as the film plays, to put these non-trivial dramaturgical questions out of your mind and just revel in Parabellum's delirious, gloriously executed bellum. Who brings a knife to a gunfight? John Wick, that's who. He also brings — to a cite a line from The Matrix, the landmark where Stahelski served as Reeves' stunt double, that gets reprised here — "Guns. Lots of guns."
The set pieces are more imaginative and daring than ever. There's a musicality and wit to the action that only the Mission: Impossible series can equal. Its first fight has Reeves fending off an attack by 7'3" Philadelphia 76er Boban Marjanovic in the stacks of the New York Public Library. Not long after that, he's on horseback, fleeing/fighting a squad of motorcyclist assassins in what looks like one long, unbroken shot. There's a slapsticky showdown where Reeves and two more would-be killers hurl a collection of exotic knives at one another. There's a geometric inevitablity to these movies that demands they build to a climactic fight in a neon-streaked hall of mirrors, but at least this one features Indonesian martial artists Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman. They previously appeared together in The Raid 2, one of the few action pictures I've ever seen that's bloodier than this one.
These characters know Wick by reputation, and they say they're honored to be fighting him, though they note he's slowed down a little since he retired. And I haven't even mentioned Mark Dacascos as Zero, a verbose (for this series) sushi chef/killer who takes over from Common in the last film as Wick's primary nemesis. He's a marvelous addition.
Nor have I mentioned the ubiquitous point-blank face-shooting, which gets harder and harder to write off as harmless escapism when real-life gun violence grows ever more prevalent. I won't try to pretend I didn't have a swell time watching John Wick: Chapter 3 — Caveat Emptor. Consider this your, watchacallit. Trigger warning.