At one point in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Keanu Reeves passes through three rooms. The first is populated with ballerinas, one of them peeling a bloody nail off her toe. The second has wrestlers tossing each other around. The third is like a conference room, with several massive oil paintings. Combine them, and you get the essence of the series, which blends grace and pain, brute strength and art together until they become one lethal, beautiful thing.
Parabellum picks up where the last film ended, with John Wick (Reeves) about to become the target of every assassin in New York City for breaking the rules of the profession by conducting business – killing someone – on the Intercontinental Hotel premises. We know by now Wick’s lethal abilities, so it’s amusing when the first site of potential violence is revealed to be the New York Public Library. And sure enough, the first of dozens of brutal fights takes place in one of the aisles, with Wick attacked by a huge man looking to pick up the 14 million dollar bounty that’s been placed on his head by The High Table, a sort of assassins guild.
There’s an ‘adjudicator’ (Asia Kate Dillon) going around sentencing people and lots of talk about services rendered and favours owed, but it’s nothing you really need to pay attention to. Everyone know that the plot in a John Wick film is just something to keep you amused until it’s time for another fragrantly violent, disturbingly eye-popping fight scene. Director Chad Stahelski shoots action as well as anyone in Hollywood right now; even in the most chaotic set-pieces, we never lose our bearings. And he keeps finding new ways for Wick to annihilate his opponents, whether it’s death by library book or the correct way to whack a horse so it’ll rear up and kick the assassin behind it (a trick so good it’s used twice).
At one point, Wick heads to Casablanca, which had me rubbing my hands in anticipation. Unlike Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, which had an Ilsa caught between two men, the film makes disappointingly little cinematic hay out of this, using it only as a means to introduce Sofia (Halle Berry), someone from John’s past who owes him a favour. Their scenes together are played for emotion, but despite the best efforts of Reeves and Berry there’s nothing there, just filler before another fight.
I wonder if I’m the only experiencing franchise fatigue with John Wick 3. There’s something inherently cynical about a third film in a series. The first is a shot in the dark, the second a chance to expand horizons. But a third… that’s when you have to start asking if there's a good reason to still be around. Something has hardened in Parabellum – the smile-inducing Matrix alum reunion of Reeves and Laurence Fishburne in Part 2 has devolved into Wick saying “Guns, lots of guns". In its visual stratagems, and in its thin writing, the film is visibly at a loss for new ideas, no matter how well it executes the old ones. And the desperation to continue is clear in its muddled final minutes.
The references to The Matrix are laid on thick – there’s Fishburne in the rain as well – but I enjoyed the nods to Asian action cinema. There’s a scene with Reeves on a motorbike fighting off his pursuers with a sword which recalls a similar setpiece in the supercharged 2017 South Korean film The Villainess. And there’s Yayan Ruhian as one of Wick’s opponents, a diminutive figure familiar to anyone who’s seen him as the unstoppable Mad Dog in The Raid. It makes sense that Stahelski and Reeves would want to include a part of that pioneering Indonesian film: it’s difficult to imagine the John Wick series existing without it.