The stone-cold killer in a bespoke bulletproof suit is back — and if you thought John Wick was good with a pencil, you should see what he can do with a book of Russian folklore in the stacks of the New York Public Library.
The same goes for axes, guns, katanas, a lot of knives and even a few helpful horses as Keanu Reeves racks up the bad guy body count in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.” The latest installment of Lionsgate’s R-rated franchise about an ex-hit man killing his way back to a clean slate picks up right where 2017’s “John Wick 2” left off and mostly follows a relentless breakneck pace until the credits roll.
It stumbles only when the action slows down to send the antihero on a clumsy side quest in search of character motivation instead of another fight. He is the Boogeyman, the underworld’s “Baba Yaga,” a man of few words; expository dialogue isn’t his strongest means of communication. That’s what fists are for.
That said, John Wick could use a moment to catch his breath. Technically the reluctantly un-retired assassin is still a grieving widower who only lost his wife, Helen, something like a few weeks ago in movie time, as seen in the New Jersey-to-Brooklyn rampage of 2014’s “John Wick.” That film, by comparison, was a downright contained moral fable about a guy with a cool car avenging his puppy.
But there’s no rest for the wicked, or for lucrative Hollywood franchises. Each “John Wick” movie has upped the ante, the destruction, and the texture of the secret society of killers who rule from the shadows with their sacrosanct laws of civility and engagement. So too has the sophistication of its action storytelling matured now that Wick has a deeper awareness of what he’s really fighting for.
To rewind: Pulled out of retirement by the Russian mobsters who stole his car and killed his dog, legendary hitman Wick unleashed hell on the underworld from whence he came in the first film.
His past continued to haunt him in the lore-expanding “John Wick 2” as he crossed the High Table — the governing guild of killuminati that enforce the rigid bylaws of contract killing — and spilled blood on the sacred grounds of the Continental, a five-star hotel for killers. He was deemed “ex-communicado” and off-limits to those who might help him.
As “Parabellum” opens moments later, he’s unleashed onto the streets of New York City, bloody and presumably very tired, with a $14-million bounty on his head and an hour’s head start. In this heightened world, all of Wick’s adversaries get a push notification alerting them of the news.
Wick smartly sends his new canine companion off to safety and very suddenly has to fend off wave upon wave of highly trained thugs. The nonstop flurry of beautifully crafted fight scenes that follows tests both the threshold of the human body to withstand stabby, slicing, bone-crunching violence and the threshold of the audience’s ability to watch said violence.
Then again, watching Reeves outfight everyone on the planet — always dressed to kill — is precisely why these films exist.
“Parabellum” unfurls some of the franchise’s most memorable and varied action to date, including a speeding motorcycle sword fight that owes a marker to recent Korean import “The Villainess,” a glass-smashing showdown against “The Raid” silat masters Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman and an opening face-off against Philadelphia 76ers center Boban Marjanović.
Another early highlight is an extended showdown in a Chinatown antiques store, during which Wick and the squad of elite killers bent on offing him run out of weapons — only to realize they’re fighting in a roomful of knives behind display cases.
Directed by stunt pro-turned-returning helmer Chad Stahelski with stunt choreography by Jonathan Eusebio and Scott Rogers, “Parabellum” bursts with the series’ usual sleek and squishy top-notch action, and the healthy dose of the winking humor that breaks Wick and his cronies out of the bounds of the genre.
The script by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams expands the Wickverse in intriguing new directions with familiar faces and strong additions to the colorful ensemble of characters.
It’s fun to spend more time with both Ian McShane, as Winston, the proprietor of the Continental Hotel with a fondness for Wick, and Lance Reddick as Continental concierge Charon, who gets to do more than bemusedly survey the clientele this time around.
Reeves’ “Matrix” co-star Laurence Fishburne also returns as the pigeon-crazy Bowery King, while Saïd Taghmaoui is a new mysterious figure Wick meets on his international odyssey visiting different oddballs of the underworld.
Anjelica Huston joins in as the Director, the tough and exacting head of a Ruska Roma ballet company staffed with tattooed ballerinas and operatives-in-the-making, and whose retconned connection to Wick provides key passage to his future.
Make no mistake, this is John Wick’s universe. Even the killers on his tail are comically in awe of his celebrity status — most of all Zero, a sushi chef by day/shinobi by night played with scene-stealing zest by Mark Dacascos (“Only the Strong,” “Double Dragon”). Less impressed but no less obsessed is Asia Kate Dillon’s no-nonsense Adjudicator, a High Table auditor in Thierry Mugler doling out penance for those sympathetic to Wick.
A few of these characters, with their eccentricities and arch deliveries, could convincingly carry their own spinoffs. None deserve one more than Halle Berry’s Sofia, an ex-assassin with two loyal Belgian Malinois whose screen time more than sets up a stand-alone of her own.
The Oscar-winning actress stalks into the Wickverse hinting at a loaded backstory, and as the evenly matched pair team up for a thrilling midpoint action sequence, the film flirts with transcendence.
In the breathtaking centerpiece, Berry and Reeves move wordlessly in concert with her attack canines across a perilous Moroccan marketplace at night, felling their enemies in mesmeric synchronicity. Stahelski’s direction, judicious editing from Evan Schiff and cinematography by Dan Laustsen create an atmosphere ripe with danger and immediacy and let the meticulous fight choreography and balletic ballistics breathe in wide, long shots.
What’s physically writ onscreen amid the furious fists, flying bullets and wall-to-wall gun-fu enriches and advances both character and story. Sofia’s palpable connection to her two beloved dogs underscores the franchise’s founding principle — that even assassins who have closed off their humanity in order to do their job should always have a soft spot for the pups they love.
Even if its themes of loyalty vs. fealty and art vs. religion may not fully cohere, “Parabellum” mounts another argument — asking us to take action cinema as seriously as the Caravaggio paintings, Tarkovsky references and tattooed ballerinas with bleeding toes that adorn the margins of this operatic symphony of carnage.
Reeves and Stahelski have worked closely since the director was his stunt double on “The Matrix,” and their shorthand makes the star an instrument of kinetic movement and destruction, the paintbrush splattering CG squibs across the canvas.
Look past the aggressive rock bro riffs of Tyler Bates’ score and the “John Wick” movies speak a subtle dialect of fluent, artful action like few other franchises in Hollywood. “Parabellum” excels when it tees up the sublimely inventive and wince-inducing close quarters fights with the lethally graceful Reeves baring John Wick’s psyche and soul between reloads and headshots. How far the saga can continue to spin arias out of that tune remains to be seen.
‘John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum’
Rating: R, for pervasive strong violence, and some language
Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Playing: Opens May 17 in general release