When we last left the John Wick franchise, it seemed as if director Chad Stahelski had finally figured out the magic mixture of plotty mythology and pulse-pounding action to make this series more than a genre curio. The first film (which was co-directed by Deadpool helmer David Leitch) had the most compelling story of any of the series and an absolutely irresistible hook, but didn’t have the best action — try as I might, I still can’t really remember anything from the first’s action sequences —but it was enough to capture the imaginations of action fans all over the world. The sequel was a net improvement in the action department, with the hall of mirrors showdown at its end being an act of graceful brutality, and its story was just as compelling in its own right, hinging upon a great cliffhanger ending, which sees Wick (Keanu Reeves) excommunicated from the classy world of tatted-up assassins, having been given a one-hour head start before every killer in New York comes after him.
It’s been a long two-year wait for the third film, the unwieldy-titled John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum(the latter word taken from the Latin phrase “Si vis pacem, para bellum,” which means “If you want peace, prepare for war”), and it finds itself on the other end of the spectrum. If the first John Wick had a story that was better than its action, and Chapter 2 possessed the so-called “right stuff,” Parabellum forgoes most of its storytelling smarts to deliver the most pulse-pounding, intense action sequences that the series has ever seen. And honestly? It’s a damn good trade-off.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the first hour of the film which, after a sustained build-up that has Wick spending his final hour as an unmarked man running errands in the rain-drenched Manhattan streets with his dog, devolves into pure action bliss. Stahelski seems to hone his chops with each and every one of these films, and the focused intensity that defined the mirror fight at the end of Chapter 2 entirely defines the rhythms of each scene here.
It’s all cleanly choreographed, free of the shaky-cam bullshit that sinks the cinematic geography of many a modern-day action sequence, and it is crafted specifically to make an audience react as loudly as they possibly can. That means that no tool is off limits for Wick and his compatriots in their fights, there are so many methods of death present throughout this film that it’s hard not to recall Joe Bob Briggs’ “drive-in totals” from MonsterVision and The Last Drive-In in which he lists the various “fighting styles” present in the film. Of course, there’s Gun-Fu and Knife-Fu and Katana-Fu, but were you expecting Book-Fu? Or Motorcycle-Fu? Or Dog-Fu? So, you better bring a seatbelt, because this movie is going to give you whiplash just from how badass it is. Hell, if you grit your teeth during action sequences, you might want a mouthguard so you don’t wind up with a bunch of powdered enamel in your stomach after this motherfucker ends.
That said, the plotting here is essentially John Wick Mad Libs, meant to string together a series of disparate action sequences in lieu of telling a complete and complicated story. That’s really not too bad, as there’s an affability to its ludicrous nature, and it’s constantly stimulating, especially with all of the new additions to the cast. That includes Halle Berry, playing a Casablanca hotel owner, dog lover and an old friend of Wick’s who begrudgingly offers him sanctuary in the aftermath of his excommunication; Asia Kate Dillon, as the Adjudicator, a servant of the high table who passes judgement on Wick’s collaborators in his absence much like a goth Witchfinder General; and Mark Dacascos as a ninja sushi chef and the film’s greatest comic addition.
Returning cast members like Ian McShane (God, can you really believe that he’s 76?), Lance Reddick, and Laurence Fishburne are as reliable and good as always, and it’s wonderful to see Reddick get his chance to kick some ass in one of the film’s larger gunfights. The twists and turns don’t really amount to very much, at least up until the ending, where things really kind of go off the deep end, and the film forgoes an easy conclusion in order to potentially set up a fourth film down the line. There are plenty of people who will get frustrated for punting on what was sure to be this movie’s premise, but, again, the quality of the action scenes on a moment to moment basis implies that the film’s focus was somewhere else from the start.
It feels somewhat unfair to judge Parabellum by its storytelling merits, honestly. It’s clear that Stahelski has fashioned this film as an out-and-out tribute to the stunt-doers, the men and women who put their lives on the line every single day for our entertainment, often concealed behind a veneer of Hollywood magic, who, as such, never get the acknowledgement that they deserve. This includes Reeves, who takes his fair share of tumbles here, who has been given the action franchise that he has always deserved, entirely focused around his aloof, fascinating persona (I’ll also say that three quarters of why this series works is because of him, and the uneasy tension between his inherent sweetness and Wick’s brutality). Everything here is done to draw your attention to the perfect intensity of the collaboration between Stahelski and his brave crew. It’s like watching a high-wire act executed perfectly above you in the big top, or how audiences must have felt in the movie hall back in the ‘10s and ‘20s when Buster Keaton was still making one-reelers (again, he is cited as a key influence in an early sequence here, and the comparison feels even more apt now).
Parabellum is an astonishing work of stunt bravado and cinematic heroism, even if it is totally comprised of gibberish when you look a little bit behind the images themselves. It is worth seeing on the biggest possible screen with the rowdiest possible audience, the perfect adrenaline-packed start to a summer movie season.