Spring and summer blockbuster audiences tend to be quite fickle these days. The biggest case in point right now is Avengers: Endgame, which had the single biggest opening weekend in movie history, and is all but sure to be the top-grossing film of the year worldwide (and probably domestically as well). However, it’s already been dethroned at the top of the weekly box office. Last week it barely survived Pikachu, and now Thanos has fallen to John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum. In an odd way it seems appropriate, as the movie that took Marvel down also happens to star a character who kills half the people in his universe, but it is sort of jarring that Endgame has only been out for four weeks, the culmination of 11 years of world-building, and in less than a month it’s already out of the top spot.
Thankfully, though, Parabellum is such a rip-roaring good time that I just can’t feel bad about it. The most cynical part of me (dubbed “Hatey McHaterson” by my girlfriend) almost wants to be offended that the John Wick series is so well done when almost every other major action franchise barely even puts in an effort. But honestly, that’s a stretch even for my jaded ass.
Picking up immediately after the events of Chapter 2, the delightfully lethal Mr. Wick (Keanu Reeves in his finest form) wanders New York city, still injured from the previous film’s events, and seeking a way to survive when he is dubbed “excommincado” by the Continental Hotel and its master assassin organization, the High Table. An open bounty is put on John’s head for $14 million, and he only has an hour head start. He uses that time to go to deliver his dog to the Continental’s protection and head to the New York Public Library, where he grabs a debt marker and a rosary. There he is encountered by Ernest, an assassin played by Philadelphia 76ers center Boban Marjanovic, who tries to make an early attempt on the prize.
For the rest of the night John alternately runs and fights to stay alive, making his way through Manhattan like a sped-up, ultra-violent version of The Warriors. He seeks the help of a woman known as The Director, the head of the Belorussian mafia (which is apparently where John’s career as a hitman began), played by Anjelica Huston. The rosary grants him safe passage to Casablanca, where he turns in his marker to former friend and partner Sofia (a very game Halle Berry), an equally hard-ass who’s moved up to hotel management under the watch of Berrada (Jerome Flynn, aka Bronn from Game of Thrones). John ultimately seeks an audience with The Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), to offer penance and get the contract against him removed.
Meanwhile, an Adjudicator from the High Table (Asia Kate Dillon from Billions) has been sent to punish those who helped Wick in the previous movie. She recruits Zero (Mark Dacascos), an assassin who uses a sushi bar as his front to aid in enforcing her judgments, particularly against the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the Continental. The Elder also wants Winston dead, allowing for A- and B-stories to converge.
This remarkably A-list cast all serve in their roles brilliantly, particularly Reeves and Berry. Wick doesn’t usually do well with non-canine partners, but her presence is a breath of fresh air, mostly because she literally doubles down on his best qualities. She’s just as deadly as Wick, but also just as empathetic, especially when it comes to dogs, as she has two German Shepherds who aid in her rampaging. She also gets super violent if one of them is threatened. The pair make for excellent foils, and Berry stands as an example of how John’s life might have turned out had things gone better for him.
The fight choreography in this film is as brilliant as its ever been, with minimal cuts and a natural flow of camera and action that plays more like a ballet than the actual ballet dancers that Huston’s Director trains in her hideout. Whether Wick (or Sofia) is battling one person or an army, the care with which director Chad Stahelski crafts these movements is on a level we mere humans cannot fathom.
Even more amazing is that the filmmakers learn from past mistakes and clearly have fun subverting the audience’s expectations. The best example of this is the fact that Stahelski et al took one of the franchise’s main critiques and turned it into a special feature of the film, and that’s the fact that in the previous two films, John seemingly had an infinite supply of bullets. I don’t just mean he had a lot of ammunition on him, I mean he would fire off dozens of shots with handguns and never, ever, reload. This time around, though, John has to compensate. He is at several moments unarmed, so he has to resort to hand-to-hand combat until he can disarm an opponent and then take their weapon before gleefully spraying their brains against the nearest vertical surface. On many occasions he makes note that he’s out of bullets. When he invokes his neo-classic catchphrase, “Guns. Lots of guns,” he also grabs several clips and attaches them to his person. In the climactic battle against heavily armored individuals, he constantly has to reload, steal their guns, and go back to a safe to upgrade his armament. He’s still nigh-invincible, but he has to now operate within some semblance of logical reality, and that just enhances the experience even further.
A couple of other great bits along this line deal with some fun subversion techniques for those like me who like to think of things from a more critical perspective. When Zero starts monologuing to Wick, it’s half fanboy gushing, half threat. And even then, John can barely participate, because his dog comes bounding the room and proceeds to lick his face off. You can’t help but laugh at the absurdity and coo at the cuteness. Similarly, the film’s subtitle, Parabellum, is part of the classic Latin paradox, “Si vis pacem, parabellum” (“If you want peace, prepare for war.” – it serves as the High Table’s motto). But also, Parabellum is the name used for a German brand of guns, which should serve as a warning to the shootout nature of this franchise if you weren’t already indoctrinated.
Unfortunately, there is one glaring problem with this film that prevents it from entering the 2019 pantheon, and that’s the fact that it serves as more of a bridge between two different stories rather than standing on its own. The entire series to date has taken place over the course of just over two weeks in that universe, which adds to the fun because the action feels like it’s taking place in real time. But in the previous two films, John had a target, an end goal. Here it’s just the general idea of survival while setting up the next film, already announced and slated for release in 2021.
Yes, Zero serves as the main action nemesis, but he’s just a hired gun (or katana as it were), and while he’s loads of fun, as a character and plot device he’s ultimately interchangeable. In the first movie, John was out for revenge because Theon Greyjoy stole his car and killed his dog. In the second film, he was placed into a catch-22 because of a marker he owed, turning his contract into a target. This movie is just the fallout from those previous actions. And again, the title comes into play (the first of the series to have a subtitle, mind you), in that John is preparing for what would seem to be an all out war on the High Table and those who have betrayed him.
You definitely get the sense that Stahelski and company know they have a winning commodity on their hands, and they’re REALLY looking forward to the movie that comes after this one, and that’s fine. It’s certainly better than other bridging movies like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. But in the meantime, they should have been just a bit more focused on making sure this could be a self-contained story like the first two films. It’s still tons of fun, don’t get me wrong, but you can see the somewhat misplaced priority in the execution, particularly in oddly paced fight sequences paired with time jumps, making you wonder just how much time John gets (if any) to catch his breath.
All that said, see it. If you’re a fan of good action, see it. If you’re a fan of any of the actors in this film, see it. If you like having your expectations challenged, see it. If you like super adorable dogs who are very very good boys and girls, see it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite action movie franchise? How can you get mad at a guy who kills so many when his dog proves conclusively that his face is so delicious? Let me know!