As John Wick executes a gang of sword-wielding assassins in the middle of a high-speed motorcycle chase, it’s easy to forget that the franchise named for him started with a puppy.
When John Wick was released in 2014, it was dismissed prior to release as a strange, low-budget curio that wasn’t likely to make waves outside of the VOD market it seemed primed for. Starring the long hit-less Keanu Reeves as a retired hitman out for revenge after his dog is murdered, it seemed to be a derivative piece of action schlock that stood out simply because of its hook of canine retribution. When it hit theaters, however, it rode to runaway success on the back of something more: it emerged as an eloquently staged, thoroughly unique thriller with action and world-building unlike any other film of the modern era. Through one tightly choreographed shootout after another, Reeves reminded audiences he was an endlessly watchable, supremely talented star and in the process sold them on a surreal world where assassins are paid in gold coins, all stay at the same murder-free hotel called the Continental and are bound to the rules set out by a shadowy council called the High Table.
After John Wick: Chapter 2 proved the mythos of Wick’s universe was more than enough to justify his return for a sequel, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (a mouthful!) is here to prove the once limited series is more than ready for the blockbuster status it’s earned over the past few years. Armed with a scale that easily dwarfs that of the original and even its predecessor, Chapter 3 is bigger, louder, and more technically impressive than ever. While Wick’s struggle for survival suffers slightly in the narrative department this time around, nothing here is flawed enough to distract you from the awe of watching him tear his way through fight after fight, each one more increasingly madcap than the one that came before.
Picking up immediately from the conclusion of its predecessor, Chapter 3 opens with what may be the most thrilling opening thirty minutes of any action film in recent memory: given an hour head start after being designated “excommunicado” for breaking the rules of killing someone in the Continental, Wick races to prepare for the onslaught of countless assassins looking to collect the freshly minted fourteen million dollar bounty on his head. Once things kick off, they really kick off: within minutes, Wick goes from killing a man with a book to tricking his hunters into getting brained via horse kicks. That’s all before he engages in the series’s most brutal sequence yet, a knife-laden brawl in an antique weapons store that will have you squirming in depraved glee.
These opening moments will charm you into believing this is a leaner, meaner outing for Reeve’s now signature antihero. For the most part, you wouldn’t be wrong; the action is gorier, crazier, and more realistic than ever. The problem is that once this thrilling introduction concludes, the film’s middle portion is bogged down by cashing in too heavily on the world-building that made the franchise so fascinating in the first place. Like free samples at the super market, the details of Wick’s world taste best in small portions, handed out sparingly to preserve what makes them special. Now working truly in the vein of franchise filmmaking, Chapter 3 doubles down on of weaving together the various story snippets left behind by previous entries and gets a bit lost in the process.
From a weird, under-explained subplot with Wick seeking help from old friend and fellow assassin Sofia (Halle Berry) to a desert meeting with those who want his life, the film can’t quite figure out what to do with the prospect of making this previously contained universe grow larger. Director Chad Stahelski (Reeve’s former stunt double) and writer Derek Kolstad, who have been with the series since its inception, seem to feel a bit trapped trying to write themselves out of the cliffhanger they gave themselves with the ending of the previous film. Like us, they’re eager to get back to the breathless shooting and punching, and as a result the middle portion of the film feels flat despite some still stellar action sequences (one involving Berry and a pair of very good German Shepherds).
Luckily, the film rediscovers its purpose in the final portion of the film, which is where it ramps back up into the dizzying shootouts and close-quarters combat that the series is known for. The major standout of the breathtaking finale is Mark Dacascos, who gives an absolutely delightful performance as a sushi chef tasked with killing Wick . Playing his character like an obsessive fan in awe of getting to battle the legend he idolizes, Dacascos gives the climax an almost meta commentary on the incessant nature of celebrity, a struggle Reeves knows all too well. It’s a smart move for the film to make, re-energizing itself to provide an intelligent and suitably stunning conclusion.
Filled to the brim with immaculate choreography and delectable treats for genre fans, the latest entry in the John Wick saga yet again proves it’s working on a level no other current action franchise can match. There’s signs the series’ plot maybe running out of steam, but rest assured that Reeves and Stahelski are as locked in as ever, turning out a dazzling film that proves their mettle for high-octane, jaw-dropping thrills.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is now in theatres worldwide.