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‘John Wick 3’ isn’t a blast; it’s many blasts, and a video game of a movie

 By Dan Cava

May 16, 2019

Whatever grownup-ness might be inferred from its richly deserved R rating, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is joyously juvenile.

Parabellum picks up moments after Chapter 2 left off. After avenging his slain dog a hundred times over in the first movie and getting coerced into performing “one last job” in the second, retired gunman John Wick has been excommunicated from the Continental Hotel and from the secret society of hitmen and women the hotel services. Now our hero is on the run through the perpetual night and ubiquitous neon of the Wick-i-verse, with an hour to go before an untold number of assassins try to cash in on the newly issued multimillion dollar bounty on Wick’s head.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick. Courtesy of Lionsgate

Like its predecessors, JW3 is as much a video game as it a movie, a third-person shooter with a mesmerizingly skilled main character battling through a set of long, increasingly difficult levels. The story scenes between stages have the goofy gravitas of an XBox game, where we learn whatever motivation will thrust our hero through his next round of near-death experiences, motivations like: “they’re coming,” or “find the Elder,” or “kill the Proprietor,” or whatever. Dialogue– which alternates between single syllables and mini-sermons on the series’ only theme, “rules and consequences”– is occasionally subtitled, sometimes for clarity, always for effect. John Wick gains passages through the world of assassins by using objects that could’ve been borrowed from The Legend of Zelda: a coin, a necklace, a bloodstained pendant. JW3 is the silliest of a wonderfully silly series.

And, really, thank goodness for that. We need it as the filter through which to enjoy the avalanche of stylized violence that is the series’ calling card. John Wick 3 isn’t a blast; it’s many blasts and beatings and stabbings. The body count in this movie is astronomical within the first 30 minutes. All manner of metal objects forcibly find their way into the heads of John Wick’s plentiful adversaries, and the movie is awash in the adolescent pleasure of watching helmeted heads snap back away from point blank shotguns. The sort of watch-the-knife-slowly-go-in moments that made us cringe in somber movies like Saving Private Ryan now make us hoot and holler in John Wick 3.

Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King and Ian McShane as Winston. Courtesy of Lionsgate

The story scenes do the essential work of moving us from one fight to the next, giving John a new primal reason (grief, revenge, survival, etc) just as the last one has run its course. The larger narrative thread remains intact, even while the details of any given scene start to feel copy-and-pasted. I lost count of the number of times a character slides one of those special coins across a negotiating table, slowly and with great solemnity. The recipient glances down, tilts their head in stoic surprise, and delivers one of the aforementioned mini-sermons. “You broke the rules, John. Actions have consequences, John. There’s no going back, John.” Uh, we get it.

None of this matters too much though, because the heart of this series will always be its extraordinary extended fight scenes. The franchise’s signature combination of choreography, camerawork, and athleticism is simply dazzling. A stunt coordinator by trade, director Chad Stahelski seems to have a limitless supply of action ideas. Motorcyclists with swords, a Manhattan gunfight on horseback, a knife fight in a knife museum– most of the setups are crazy in concept and exhilarating in execution. And yet even here, amidst the filmmakers’ crowning achievements, are subtle traces of creative fatigue. The movie’s final mano-y-mano fights are perhaps the least distinctive of the franchise. They’re not exactly boring, but they are the first time the fight scenes have been both fun and perfunctory.

Halle Berry as Sofia. Courtesy of Lionsgate

The movie’s most satisfying innovation is a handful of sequences wherein Keanu Reeves fights, not against, but in cooperation with another performer. Halle Berry appears (too briefly for my taste) as Sophia, an assassin who has exiled herself to Casablanca in order to keep her daughter safe. Her lengthy action scene alongside Reeves is absolutely magical. Berry is a BEAST and Stahelski honors her efforts with the kind of long camera takes previously reserved for the series’ male hero. Like Reeves, the same ferocity that sometimes makes Berry’s dramatic acting feel overwrought finds a fitting outlet when she is in motion. Berry is so vicious and efficient as an enraged militarized mama bear that John Wick’s lamenting lone wolf temporarily takes a back seat.

Most of the other actors know what kind of movie they are in, and have fun with the material. There’s nothing new to say about Keanu Reeves in the role of John Wick. He’s exactly as Wick-ed as the other two movies. Laurence Fishburne and Ian McShane continue to chew the scenery, as they were hired to. Lance Reddick maintains his unflappable composure as the Continental’s concierge, most notably when, like Halle Berry, he gets thrown into a shootout alongside Keanu. Only Asia Kate Dillon is flatly bad as the Adjudicator. Whether the reason, miscasting or sheer bad acting, Dillon’s line readings are hard to hear and harder to believe.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick. Courtesy of Lionsgate

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum successfully continues the extended fever dream began by its forebears: tailored suits, strobe lights, clandestine criminals, and balletic brutality. (Literally. One series of slayings is edited alongside footage of dancing ballerinas.) Fans of the Wick series should rejoice; the fundamentals of the franchise are more than intact here in the third move. Like The Continental’s concierge, we welcome back Mr. Wick gladly, even if he is starting to look a little worse for wear.

Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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