It’s hard to explain exactly what it is that separates the John Wick franchise from the ceaseless assembly line of Hollywood assassin thrillers/actioners. Is it the simple, quiet, comforting-yet-menacing presence of Keanu Reeves? Is it the bizarre worldbuilding, wherein the universe of John Wick seems like our world, yet strangely … isn’t? Is it the always-remarkable supporting cast, which in the case of John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum introduces a murderer’s row of Halle Berry, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Anjelica Houston, Jason Mantzoukas, Saïd Taghmaoui, and even 7’3” NBA player Boban Marjanović? Is it the increasingly fascinating, even if sometimes over-the-top mythology of this universe, that features an odd mix of both vibrant new technology and clever retro antiquation? Or is it the dazzling, increasingly intense choreography?
It is, of course, all of those things. The John Wick franchise is a breathless mix of flash, action, drama and intensity, and director Chad Stahelski is three films deep and showing no signs of losing his very firm grip on this universe. I call it a universe because that’s what it is. John Wick does not take place in our world. It’s a fully, crazily realized dimension wherein all of the denizens of its underbelly — the homeless, the street urchins, the taxi drivers, the bodega workers, all of them — are a part of this fascinating, deadly construct wherein assassins roam the streets hunting the targets (and each other). Where there exists a secondary economy of gold coins and rings, necklaces and other odd bits and pieces that are somehow universally recognized.
Parabellum builds deeply on these ideas, expanding the universe and mythology of John Wick, introducing more far-reaching conceits and concepts. With new characters like The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon in a fabulous performance that’s so similar to their character in Billions, yet with a more charming — and sinister — tilt to it) and The Director (Houston, being as splendid as you’d expect) and The Elder (Taghmaoui, played with a serene coldness), there’s some clear inspiration from more fantastical stories (The Matrix definitely comes to mind), yet it’s still firmly its own creature. Spanning from New York City to Casablanca, the film takes those locales and twists them into wild alternate realities, recognizable and yet so very alien, using our world to create new ones.
The story picks up immediately after the events of John Wick Chapter 2, with Reeves’ titular character staggering away from The Continental after being given a merciful head start by its manager Winston (Ian McShane). Wick is now “excommunicado,” bereft of all support from the assassin underworld, and now the top target in all the world. He must either find his way back into the good graces of “The High Table,” the governing body of … the assassins? The world? It’s never quite clear … or die trying. Several of his old tentative allies are revisited — Lance Riddick’s Charon, the concierge of the Continental, and Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, while also seeking new ones such as Sofia (Halle Berry), a conflicted retired assassin who lives with two terrifying German Shepherds as her bodyguards. But his hunt for salvation also comes with new dangers, chief among them being the ruthless Adjudicator and her maniacal hired gun Zero (Mark Dacascos) and his gang of ninja-like killers.
It’s a bloody work of art from there. It’s tempting to call the John Wick franchise style over substance, but that’s a lazy critique. There’s so much here, so much rich symbolism and strange, untold history. It’s a world that Stahelski and creator/ screenwriter Derek Kolstad could mine for years. For while Reeves is the pure focus of the franchise — the only character with anything resembling a history — the wealth of intriguing characters that come with each entry only deepens and expands upon this world. This is to say nothing of the action choreography, which continues to be absolutely stunning. Violence is its own art form here, and Parabellum is a masterpiece, running rampant through its often dark and rainy landscapes. From katana-wielding motorcyclists to a dizzying array of gun battles to hand-to-hand bouts taking place in a glass-and-mirrors bunker to a grisly knife fight that takes place in a gallery full of knives, the film continues the franchise’s streak of creative settings to showcase absolute mayhem. The highlight is unquestionably a battle featuring Reeves and Berry against video game-like waves of relentless enemies, featuring blazing guns, punches and kicks and brutal combat, yet also featuring a new element — two extraordinarily trained dogs who add their own brand of chaos into the mix.
But of course, the film is Reeves’ playground and his stoic avatar of vengeance is note-perfect. Reeves continues to be a stunning physical performer, doing many of his own stunts and holding his own in some shockingly intense battles. Stahelski knows exactly how to use him, too, and so we’re given long, wide shots of hand-to-hand combat that allow you to see just how proficient the players are, and using the quick cuts for a more startling, energetic effect.
There are moments when it falters, to be sure. To return to the comparison to The Matrix, the worldbuilding and mythological elements cause it to sometimes teeter under the weight of its own bullshit, and sometimes Kolstad’s script gets a little too proud of itself. There’s just so much that sometimes it feels overfilled, and while I like that it’s more than just a series of action sequences, sometimes the forced melodrama becomes a bit of an eye-roller. Thankfully, it’s saved by its performers, who deliver some utterly preposterous dialogue with hilarious aplomb. Dacascos is wonderful, an oddly goofy, unhinged killer who idolizes his target like a child. Dillon is probably my favorite part of the film, using just a minor tilt of the corner of their mouth to convey more than any words could while also speaking in an unsettlingly bright tone at the darkest of moments. But really, performance-wise there are no weak spots here, and that’s what allows it to transcend its stumbles.
John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum is a curious combination of the predictable and the unexpected. To a certain degree, if you’ve seen the first two then you know what you’re getting into and if you enjoyed them, you’re going to love this entry. While the general framework is predictable, the various gears and mechanics that make it move are unique and unexpected, keeping the franchise fresh and moving briskly. It’s intense and wild action, created within a strange and beautiful and terrible world, and it’s absolutely riveting to witness. With a renewed dedication to its pulpy, comic book-like roots, Parabellum is an unquestionably enjoyable continuation of this dark, fantastical world.
Oh, and a spoiler postscript for you animal lovers?