‘John Wick: Chapter 3’ Shoots and Kills With Pure Exhilaration

The best way to enjoy “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” is as an experience of exhilarating aesthetic pleasure. It’s all about the style. It continues the ridiculously entertaining storyline from its two predecessors, while borrowing from a long tradition of great action cinema, pumping up the volume with abandon. Yes, we know that in the real world one man could hardly survive days let alone minutes against what’s thrown at John Wick in this movie, but it never pretends to be anything other than feverish fiction. What matters is the neon lighting, elegant suits and how Keanu Reeves wields a weapon.

Super assassin Wick (Reeves) is on the run, exactly at the moment where we left him in “Chapter 2.” Deemed “excommunicado” by Winston (Ian McShane) for having killed an Italian member of an international assassin’s guild at the Continental hotel (which doubles as an international assassin hub), Wick now has a massive bounty on his head, $14 million to be exact. Every assassin in New York City, if not the world, is after him. Old allies like the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) provide some assistance, but can’t be trusted. The guild, or “High Table,” have sent The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to make those who have helped Wick pay, while one assassin in particular, Zero (Mark Dacascos), is desperate to take down the legend himself. In trying to find redemption and payback, Wick travels to Casablanca to meet with old fellow gun for hire Sofia (Halle Berry). He hopes she can get him into contact with an important man who may be able to free him of the bounty, but of course at a bloody cost.

The above described plot barely scratches the surface. All the intrigue, characters and subplots are enough to keep the series going into “Mission: Impossible” length. Even then, it is mere decoration for a work of adrenaline pop art. The original 2014 “John Wick” was a refreshing throwback to 90s genre filmmaking, with an almost eloquent touch in the way Wick took on the Russian mob to avenge his dog. 2017’s “John Wick: Chapter 2” exploded the possibilities of the series, expanding its rich visuals and fierce stunts, not to mention the story itself into an international chase involving global cabals. “Parabellum,” named after a Latin quote delivered by Winston before a pivotal showdown, becomes an epic of color and fury. Returning are director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, who seamlessly add more layers to the character of Wick. What began as a loner is now a man with a clearer past, a past that includes a ballerina overseer, The Director (Anjelica Huston), who was once Wick’s mentor and holds court in a lavish theater. There is also The Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), who lives secluded in a hot desert Wick somehow traverses in a suit, willing to help if Wick makes a pretty scarring blood oath.

Like the story basics, all the world building is just fuel for the spectacle. “Parabellum” is a film of moments and images. Stahelski opens with a pure rush as Wick runs through rain-soaked streets and does battle with an assassin in the New York Public Library, instructing us on how to kill someone with a book. Wick will battle pursuers in hallways, glass rooms, Morocco, horse barns (where a smack on the horse’s posterior releases a killer kick) and use everything from knives to his belt. This is the chapter where everyone in the city is after our hero, so every spot becomes a battle arena. Among the added details to the bloodbaths are two trained dogs Sofia unleashes on foes, with a tendency to tear at crotches. This film defines action, but Stahelski films it with brilliant choreography reminiscent of Hong Kong action films and directors like John Woo. You can sense homages to Woo in particular shots, as when Wick and an opponent spin around to realize their aimed guns are empty, an obvious wink at cult hits like “Face/Off.” An issue with bad action movies is that they lazily give us explosions and shoot outs without any artistry. The “John Wick” films are almost commentaries on the genre itself, rushing along with skill and a sense of humor. After a brutal chase Zero and Wick take a break inside the Continental, where Zero suddenly turns into a fan boy and expresses how happy he is to meet the legendary Wick. Two assassins will stop to express the same sense of honor in another clash later on.

It’s all done with an impressive sense of visual creativity. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen again captures lush imagery, combining noir shadows with striking colors. You can just sit back and admire what’s on screen, like the way ninjas on bikes cross a tunnel with glistening swords, or the cold walk of The Adjudicator, and the elegant décor of Winston’s underground bunker stacked with weapons as he plays Vivaldi. Wick will tackle his pursuers in rooms with display cases housing glass skulls. Like Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita” or Antoine Fuqua’s “The Replacement Killers,” what absorbs the viewer is the film’s very texture and sense of technique, combined with violence that feels like blood-soaked ballet.

Keanu Reeves was born to play this role. It requires him to act with his penchant for lonely intensity, delivering raspy one-liners or disappearing into crowds. He became an action icon with “The Matrix,” indeed there is one line that is an upfront tribute to that classic, and as John Wick he again proves he can be the perfect, fictional superman, capable of speaking all languages and somehow defying all blows to his body. In real life this guy would be dead in 10 minutes or less, but “Parabellum” is acutely aware it’s a movie, so it focuses on basking in being entertaining. 

“Parabellum” is not only a worthy sequel to the last two “John Wick” films, it surpasses them. A film needs to be judged on what it seeks to do, and this one promises action and certainly delivers it, but with the added adrenaline kick of impressive craft. We’re grateful Wick is hard to take down, because the cinematic rush is killer.

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” opens May 17 in theaters nationwide.