With both his dog and his muscle car already avenged (and then some) in the previous two movies, the biggest question going into John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum may be who or what a “parabellum” is? Well, for the non-scholars of dead languages reading this, you might be interested to know that it comes from the Latin phrase: Si vis pacem, para bellum. Which translates as, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” And it’s safe to say that no one prepares for war like John Wick does.
You may also be interested to know that the third film in this unlikely sleeper franchise (once again directed by Keanu Reeves’ Matrix stunt double-turned-action auteur Chad Stahelski) is, hands down, the most giddily brutal and bananas film in the series to date. So much so, that I completely gave up on keeping a running tab of the film’s bodycount after the first 10 minutes and just settled in for all of the giddy carnage. After all, this is a film where interchangeable goons and grunts are dispatched with knives, knuckles, knees to the nads, and of course guns. Lots and lots of guns. So many guns, in fact, that the film vaults way past fetishistic irresponsibility into the over-the-top realm of Tex Avery cartoon farce. The hero even manages to fire off a few acrobatic, meme-friendly rounds while galloping on a horse through the rain-slicked streets of New York City, like a cross between Travis Bickle and Roy Rogers.
The opening of John Wick 3 picks up just minutes after the end of its 2017 predecessor, with Keanu Reeves’ wronged, out-of-retirement uber-assassin on the run through nighttime Manhattan. Wick, as you may recall, committed the cardinal sin of offing a made member of the shadowy assassins’ guild known as The High Table in the swank, no-kill-zone sanctuary of Ian McShane’s Continental Hotel. Now, he’s been declared “excommunicado”, which in layman speak means that its open season on Wick. He has a bullseye and a bounty on his head.
Out of loyalty, McShane’s ascot-wearing Winston gave Wick a one-hour head start to get lost before the word would go out to the world’s seemingly bottomless network of professional hit men (and women) and they would come after him for the reward. That bounty, initially set at $14 million, makes Wick a man with few friends. Not that he had many to begin with. As played by Reeves (who, at age 54, can still remarkably dish out and take a hell of a beating), Wick is the ultimate tragic loner – haunted and now hunted. And the role fits the soulfully unknowable star like the bespoke, slim black suit he wears on the job.
The first brawl in John Wick 3 is a ridiculously punishing doozy and it just gets nastier from there. Set in the rare books stacks at the New York Public Library, Wick faces off with a hulking giant named Ernest, who reads Chaucer and looks like he could be a center on the Serbian Olympic basketball team. These two apparently have some history because they banter before bloodying their fists. Ernest: “Fourteen million dollars is a lot of money, John.” To which, Wick gruffly replies, “Not if you can’t spend it.” And then, boom, it’s off to the beat-down races, with Wick using priceless leather-bound volumes to bludgeon the dude to death.
What makes that brawl — and the dozens of subsequent ones in the film – so great isn’t just the lightning-quick close-quarters fighting or the cameo appearances of Asian cinema martial-arts heavies that are delirious easter eggs for the action savants in the crowd, it’s the way the audience feels each blow in their guts. As in The Raid films, the punches are insanely inventive, but they also hurt. And they also sound especially crunchy. Whoever was John Wick 3’s Foley Artist deserves a raise.
The thing that’s always set the John Wick movies a notch above their ultraviolent action flick peers is the Byzantine world that screenwriter Derek Kolstad created for the first film. The Wickverse is a wildly creative, elaborately detailed pulp realm of rules, codes of conduct, Masonic hierarchies, and even old-world civility. One of the new characters introduced in John Wick 3 is Asia Kate Dillon’s “Adjudicator”, who spells out the fine print of the High Table like a scowling font of footnotes. As the franchise has unfolded, that world has broadened and become more and more fleshed out, so much so that it now risks becoming ridiculously baroque. Still, it adds a dash of intelligence and class to a movie filed under what a lot of moviegoers still dismiss as a gutter genre.
As a man without a country in John Wick 3, Reeves’ bruised and battered hero is forced to call in the only two favors he has left to his credit. The first is with an underworld Russian mother figure who’s played by Anjelica Huston (doing her best Maria Ouspenskaya accent) and who helps him flee to Casablanca. The second is with an equally badass assassin in Morocco played by Halle Berry (whose pair of attack dogs steal the middle-third of the movie). Neither Oscar-winning actress will likely win another statuette for their work here, but they lend the film a jolt of unexpected emotional weight. I don’t mean to give the impression that John Wick 3 is anything grander than a gorgeously choreographed, gratuitously violent action movie. But as gorgeously choreographed, gratuitously violent action movies go, it’s high art. A-