The promise of John Wick: Chapter 2 is in superposition. Depending on how one comes into John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, from which angle, that promise is simultaneously fulfilled and squandered. Chad Stahelski’s third and by no means last entry in the saga of laconic gentleman terminator John Wick (Keanu Reeves), the Baba Yaga of every gangster’s worst nightmares, either lives up to previous entries as far as setting the standard for visceral, eardrum-squelching violence, or it fails to take the series in the direction presaged by the apocalyptic cliffhanger of the previous chapter. No, every living human in New York is not a secret assassin, plunging John Wick into a race against time through a Dantean Hell of his own devising—like Crank but better (sorry, Vulgar Auteurism aficionados)—but John Wick does pretty much murder everybody in the City before traveling to Morocco, where he murders even more people, before returning to New York, where he continues decimating the urban center’s population. As Continental Manager Winston (Ian McShane) puts it, John Wick needs to decide whether he’s the boogie man or, simply, a man. Whether John Wick is a videogame or something more existential. He chooses both. We’re afraid to lift the top off Schrodinger’s box to see whether that dog is alive or dead.
Parabellum begins, as one might expect, where Chapter 2 ends, John Wick given an hour grace period to get out of New York City before his “excommunicado” leaves him without an ally on earth and a $14M bounty on his slickly hirsute head. As he runs, injured, through the streets with his new dog by his side, it begins to rain buckets; soaked and bathed in neon light, this is Hot Topic noir, bleakness and despair wreathed in endless emo cool. Enter the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), a vestige of the High Table, the governing body apparently in charge of…everything? After John killed a recently matriculated member of the High Table on Continental grounds (see: Chapter 2), the Adjudicator’s dispatched to figure out why that happened, who’s to blame and, more importantly, who aided John Wick during that ill-advised grace period, which he should have never gotten in the first place. Delivering grim sentences to both Winston and the the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) for their abetting of John Wick after he broke the rules, the Adjudicator establishes a clear hierarchy of power within the Wickiverse, a structure only complicated when later John attempts to contact the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), who is somehow above the High Table. By the time we reach the final action spectacle, during which the forces aligned against John Wick wear the kind of body armor requiring an exorbitant amount of kill shots and then, halfway through the melee, a weapon upgrade, we’ve lapsed completely into the realm of the first-person shooter, realizing we’ve already made our way through numerous, ever-increasingly difficult levels and boss battles with an impeccable kill/death ratio.
The limitless beauty of the John Wick franchise, crystalized in Chapter 3, is that alluding to videogames when talking about the movie doesn’t matter. None of this matters. At one point, John runs from the countless bands of thugs after him—each dressed thematically, as if New York is divided amongst The Warriors-esque assassin cliques—leading (in this case) a group of vaguely English dandies into a horse barn, where, upon activating his environment, has two different horses kick two different men to death, their skulls collapsing like deflated souffles. It’s shocking and one can feel that brutality all the way down to the pit of one’s stomach, but it’s also undeniably the stuff of videogames, of a Streets of Rage kind of relentless brawler. Even John Wick’s near-immortality reads as a bountiful stock of 1-ups; when, early in the film, John rushes to an underground doctor’s (Randall Duk Kim) office to take care of the stab wound he’d just received, the doctor comments that the knife “nicked an artery,” a wound that would have left any normal player dead, bled out in the street. In retrospect, any modern cinematic action hero faces similarly physically insurmountable odds and somehow survives, but as videogames and action movies parabolically draw closer and closer to one another, John Wick 3 may be the first of its kind to figure out how to keep that comparison from being a point of shame.
Accordingly, each action set piece is an astounding feat, from the first hand-to-hand fracas in narrow library stacks—the antagonist the exceedingly tall Boban Marjanovich, the weapon the spine of a weighty tome on Russian oligarchy—to a comic knife fight amidst cases of antique weapons (featuring the potentially most unnerving bit of violence in the John Wick universe unflinchingly proceeds), to a chase on horseback and, later, a chase on motorcycles care of katana-wielding meanies. Every gun shot, body blow, shattering jaw and gut slicing rings out sonorously from the screen, so that even if yet another faceless henchperson loses their life, leaving this mortal plane unnoticed, at least the act of violence that ended them will be remembered. Combined with Keanu Reeve’s inimitable athleticism, John Wick: Chapter 3 is as deeply satisfying as any hard-R blockbuster can get. Not only does Stahelski know intuitively where to place the viewer in the midst of any action, efficiently laying out geographical stakes at every turn, he uses long takes without drawing attention to them, transforming marathon-length murder sprees into matters of endurance. When the film pauses to give John Wick a moment to rest, the pause is as much for us as for our exhausted anti-hero.
The film also pauses to introduce Halle Berry as Sofia, Manager of the Moroccan Continental and a dog-loving assassin whose gunkata abilities are on par with John’s knack for slaughter. Watching Sofia and John annihilate a small army, reloading clip after clip with mindless grace while Sofia’s dogs go for the nuts of every schmuck faceless enough to go to their deaths by way of their crotches, eventually becomes a soothing balm of welcome carnage—but the symbolism of Halle Berry’s place in the Wickiverse should not be ignored. Considering that John Wick was first brought back into that gangster life by the murder of his new dog (given to him by his deceased wife) and the loss of his wife’s memory, having another woman from his past wield her canines to eradicate the evil that threatens John’s humanity gives yet another gimmicky action scene some narrative stakes, despite the video-game-like edifice. Meanwhile, Mark Dacascos chews up an excellent turn as a villain we may actually not want murdered, the actor’s charisma as a Wick fanboy fleshing out an otherwise bland badguy, and assorted supporting castmates such as McShane and Lance Reddick (as Charon, front desk manager of the Continental) double down deliciously, finally getting some serious screen time to take the focus off John Wick and demonstrate why they hold the power they do. The Wickiverse grows; DLCs are now available.
Chapter 3 speaks frequently about “consequence,” about the epiphany dawning on John that his violence has a crucial impact on his soul, let alone the souls of many others, while admitting that for some people, their fates are irrevocable. If John is the Baba Yaga, then his destiny is set. If he’s a man, then he always has a choice. Far from a castigation of our tendency to consume detrimental entertainment, John Wick 3 revels in its ludicrous gore without losing sight of the very real toll of such unmitigated havoc. It’s as much a blast of blood and guts as it is an immersive menagerie of pain, a litigation of the ways in which we imbibe and absorb and demand violence, in which we hyperstylize death.
This is why Keanu Reeves is perfect. He is a good bad actor, a bad good actor, a presence entirely his own. We deserve him, and we don’t deserve him. Most importantly, he is capable of holding the screen, and the audience, in thrall no matter the repetitive nature of what’s happening. All on a level so instinctual it might as well be quantum.
Director: Chad Stahelski
Writers: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins & Marc Abrams
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Laurence Fishburne, Anjelica Houston, Asia Kate Dillon, Randall Duk Kim, Jason Mantzoukas
Release Date: May 17, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.