John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)
Rated R for pervasive strong violence, and some language
Score: 5 out of 5
I can start and finish this review right now with "it's more John Wick", and that would be that. This series' reputation is such that it's made it into Fortnite, perhaps the purest symbol yet of how well its throwback to classic action movies has succeeded: just like RoboCop, Aliens, and Terminator 2, these films are getting merchandising tie-ins aimed at people way too young to be watching them. The first two movies stand as modern Hollywood action classics that have only gotten better with age, setting up a parallel universe where the criminal underworld is filled with larger-than-life figures and a whole bunch of secret, arcane rules that exist to be shot, stabbed, and beaten into submission by our suit-clad, shaggy-haired, ex-assassin hero who simply wanted to spend time with his dog. At a time when Chinese action movies are devolving into a mix of gung-ho propaganda flicks and cornball sci-fi effects spectacles that, were it not for the casting and language, one might have expected to see the names of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich attached to (ask your parents, 2000s kids), these movies have kept the spirit of Golden Age, pre-handover Hong Kong action cinema alive and well on a new continent, crafting their world from whole cloth but making it feel more real than any number of self-consciously weighty crime dramas. And the third film, armed with a bigger budget than both its predecessors put together (although still very modest by Hollywood blockbuster standards), marks the pinnacle of the series with regards to pure action. While the joy of the world-building may take a backseat here, that's because this film, having already established so much in the last two entries in the series, was too busy kicking my ass from the window to the wall. Pure awesomeness captured on camera doesn't come more pure than it does here.
The film starts minutes after the end of the last movie, with John Wick now a wanted man with a $14 million bounty on his head after killing the mob boss Santino on the grounds of the Continental Hotel, which had been declared neutral ground by the "High Table" that governs the various crime families and intercedes in their disputes. In other words, every assassin in New York and beyond wants a piece of him. John flees the city and heads to Casablanca to find a way to get the bounty lifted and go back to his old life. This being a John Wick movie, nothing is that simple, and every move he makes simply leads him down a road containing more mooks for him to kill.
I can't really say much else about the plot, not because of spoilers but because it so plainly exists strictly as a reason for John to get from point A to point B and kill everyone at and in between those points. It's almost like a video game in that regard, complete with exotic levels ranging from a Moroccan kasbah to a hotel lobby to a gallery filled with crystal skulls. We're introduced to more people from John's past, particularly people who owed him favors, from Anjelica Huston as a ballet director to the show-stealing Halle Berry as Sofia, a fellow assassin now living in Casablanca who initially wonders if she should just shoot John and collect the $14 million. Berry was a standout despite only appearing in a third of the movie, demonstrating how she could've easily been one of Hollywood's go-to action heroines in the 2000s had she played her cards right rather than doing Catwoman, and how, like Keanu Reeves, she still has what it takes to play that sort of role. Berry's Sofia makes for a badass, mysterious femme fatale with emphasis on the "fatale", working as a team with her two German shepherds to make short work of foes and easily keeping up with John in the action scenes. It felt like somebody asked "what if Wick were a chick?", right down to the love of our canine partners, and set out to craft a female counterpart to John, one seemingly designed to make me want to see a spinoff featuring her -- and if that was the case, it certainly worked. Asia Kate Dillon, meanwhile, manages to play a perfect mix of calculating, personable, and just slightly weird as the figure known only as the Adjudicator, a representative of the High Table who's sent to let the people who helped John out in the last movie know that there will be consequences for their actions. Without ever personally joining in on the action or even picking up a gun, Dillon here is somebody who can bring an entire room to silence through mere presence alone. Keanu Reeves, of course, is just as amazing as he was before, but that was a given going in, really.
Because to talk about Keanu Reeves in this film, you have to talk about the action, and it's kind of hard to talk about the action in a way that does it justice. The action here is nothing short of superlative, every scene feeling like something that you might see in the climax of a different action film, right out the gate with an opening in a library that culminates in a brutal death by book curb-stomp. It's got variety. It's got blood. It's got creativity. It's got every weapon you could think of, in every backdrop you can think of given the settings. Fistfights, massive shootouts, Sofia's dogs getting some nicks in, two separate motorcycle chases that are absolutely glorious to watch, a final battle involving a horde of elite bad guys wearing body armor, this is as much director Chad Stahelski's film as it is Reeves'. If you've seen the last two movies, you should know exactly what to expect here, and the answer is that, but on a bigger budget that allows the filmmakers to go all-out with all of their bigger ideas. It never ceases to amaze me that, after five years, only now has somebody gotten around to making a John Wick video game, because these movies feel like all the best parts of a stylish, in-your-face action shooter compressed into 131 minutes.
The Bottom Line
There's not much more I could say except that, if you're already a fan of these movies, you've probably already seen this, and if not, you should get on that. John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum upholds and builds upon the series' fine tradition of outrageous action and heightened world-building to great effect, and even if you haven't seen the prior entries, you'll still have an amazing time with this.