The Pitch: John Wick (Keanu Reeves) was last seen running through the park with his dog, moments from becoming a sitting duck for every hired gun and assassin in the world, stripped of every protection offered by the Continental due to an on-premise killing. In this society, rules are key. The wildly entertaining third installment of the action franchise picks up with that run, and as with its predecessors, it doesn’t really slow down from there. Is it possible to survive when the world’s best professional killers are on the hunt for you, all the resources they need at arm’s reach? As the Continental’s owner Winston (Ian McShane) puts it, when you’re John Wick, the odds are about even.
John’s survival of these early pursuits should come as no surprise. This third film comes with the subtitle Parabellum, which is both a make of gun and, when split in two, translates from Latin as prepare and war. A war is a series of battles, not any one. So the power behind the Continental — a decision-making body called the High Table — makes war, turning all their artillery on the man they call Baba Yaga and sending The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon of TV’s Billions) to pass judgment on those who may have helped him, while Wick himself pulls out every last marker he’s got in hopes of reaching the people who can help him put an end to the chaos.
That’s the story, but as anyone who has seen one of the first two films knows, the stories within the story are the real attraction, and they exist in dynamic, surprising, often inventive and always thrilling fight scenes that pepper the film, each with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Yes, Yes, He’s a Very Good Boy: As you may be aware, the murder of John Wick’s adorable puppy served as the inciting incident of sorts for the trilogy, though to paraphrase the man himself, it wasn’t just about the dog. The current pup, which signified something of a new lease on life for Mr. Wick, is indeed a very good boy. He exits (not via death, an important clarification) early on and doesn’t return for a solid chunk of the movie, and yet his amazing little face looms large. It would seem that the John Wick franchise has discovered its status as the pre-eminent “murderer must love dogs” epic of our time, and has decided to lean in.
That’s fine, and it makes sense — John’s love for his dog (and all dogs, really) isn’t just a quirk of the film, it’s also a signifier for the character — but man, does Parabellum want to make sure you leaving thinking about the dog stuff. While not often glimpsed in the first half, he’s often referenced by the people John encounters, notably Mark Dacascos’ Zero, another killer of incredible skill, and Anjelica Huston’s Director, a powerful figure to whom Wick applies for assistance.
Then there are the dogs belonging to other people, two of whom become combatants themselves (they are also good boys), and other references to the events of past films, which grow increasingly self-aware. They’re all either amusing or honest, but together give an overall impression of wink-wink, nudge-nudginess that doesn’t seem to be of a piece with the rest of the carefully constructed universe. When John gets pulled back into “the life” in the first film, he drags the audience along with him; we learn about his underworld as he travels through it. Each self-conscious moment feels like the film itself surfacing for air, temporarily exiting its universe and entering our own. There are far worse flaws for a film to have, but still, it rankles.
But C’mon, What About the Fights, Already? They are plentiful and, unsurprisingly, excellent. Horses, as well as dogs, get involved here; an extended sequence at a gun shop mostly involves huge knives. At one point John utilizes a book (the pencil of Parabellum), and at another, a motorcycle. As always, director Chad Stahelski’s camera captures every nuance, all of Wick’s calculations, the shifts in power, the strategic thinking, the importance of carefully assembling a weapon or changing a clip, and above all, the physical cost of these skirmishes. Wick may seem unkillable, but it still takes a lot of muscle to thoroughly stab a man. These characters are craftspeople; the John Wick franchise is a study in craftsmanship.
That’s true of the characters, and of the creatives behind them as well. Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard’s score masterfully mirrors the emotional experiences of either Wick or the audience; it blasts forward like a bullet when he’s at top speed, and when his (and therefore our) pulse slows, it follows. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography contributes greatly to the rich sense of place, as do the top-tier production design, costume design, art direction, and set decoration — and as we visit not only new locations, but also new rooms within the world we already know, each of them had plenty to do.
The John Wick of Action Stars: Other characters talk about John Wick like he’s a living legend, a titan of the form; they murmur words of professional and personal admiration. He has fans, even among his peers. If there is any justice in the world, those who make action movies will talk about Keanu Reeves in exactly the same way, forever. Parabellum cements Reeves as one of the greats; there are sequences that, even if they didn’t result in press-making injuries, are every bit as thrilling to witness as Tom Cruise’s great leap in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Watching him reload a gun is fascinating. Watching him calculate the quickest way to ensure that a dead guy is really dead is fascinating. You always know what he’s doing, and why.
But beyond that, Reeves is a wholly engaging presence throughout. He gives Wick an inherent frankness that makes his threats, expressions of sympathy or desperation, and punchlines all the more potent. That’s particularly true of his scenes with Halle Berry, whose character possesses a kind of trapped-bird energy, scattered and desperate, even when she’s focused and lethal. He’s stolid, she chaotic; theirs is a compelling dynamic.
The Verdict: If you’re into the John Wick films for the world-building, the rich sense of environment which films like Hotel Artemis have attempted to ape, it’s possible you might be a little disappointed in Parabellum. The corners Wick explores, new and old alike, are as fascinating as ever, but both the self-referential moments and the extended time away from the protagonist occasionally let the air out of that particular balloon. But your disappointment will likely be minimal. It’s a thrilling, surprising, often funny film, centered on a terrific performance.
If, on the other hand, you’re buying a ticket to see John Wick kill a dude with a book, you’ll be fine from start to finish. Try not to whoop too loudly.
Where’s It Playing? Parabellum kicks and punches his way into theaters everywhere this weekend.