Since the first installment pummeled audiences in 2014, the John Wick movies have been raising the stakes on what an American action franchise can be. CGI monsters can be cool, explosions are neat, but the thrill of watching the beloved Keanu Reeves transform himself into an unstoppable force of nature, a one-man army who does all of his own stunts (including the driving!) is one unique to this series.
Its origins are in the Matrix—director Chad Stahelski was a stunt coordinator and even double for Reeves—and that DNA can be seen in the stylization, the world-within-a-world atmosphere, and the treatment of action and combat as its own form of storytelling.
Where John Wick stands apart is that it is specifically not revolutionary in story or technique. It excels at the basics where many action films either fail or try to find the easy way out. When a movie star doesn’t know how to fight, they fix it in post with editing tricks and diversions (and once you know what they are, you can never unsee them). John Wick, meanwhile, put Reeves through extensive, rigorous combat and weapons training. You’re not watching an actor pretend to fight—you’re watching a person transform. It’s this dedication to hard work that puts these movies in a class of their own.
Chapter 3—Parabellum begins less than an hour after the end of Chapter 2. Wick (Reeves) is scrambling to find safety as every assassin in New York City watches in anticipation for the grace period to end and the $14 million contract on his life to open. He calls in past favors from old friends—the Russian ballet instructor known as the Director (Anjelica Huston) and dog-loving safehouse administrator Sofia (Halle Berry, who gets her own showstopper of a shootout). Helping him is a risky endeavor for anyone who agrees, but it’s hard to say no to John Wick, whether out of admiration, affection, or fear. Meanwhile, an adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) visits Wick’s friends and former allies, Winston (Ian McShane) and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), giving each seven days to resign for aiding Wick’s rebellion against the High Table. She also sends an assassin of her own (Mark Dacascos) to dispatch Wick.
As always, the action is the star of this chapter, but it’s the expanding universe and world-building that propel the series beyond a collection of terrific fights. It’s tricky to pull off a concept like the Continental, a hotel of assassins who use their own underground currency—explain too much and you distract from the action, add too many rules and you risk retconning your story into dust. The Wick universe expands just enough with each installment to contain the events at hand. This gives the story room to breathe while setting limits on the characters so we can feel the pressure along with them.
Parabellum looks at Wick’s values as a man, beneath his legendary skills. Why does he fight to stay alive? In John Wick, he’s out for revenge. In Chapter 2, he can still taste the normal life, but must tie up a loose end. That possibility no longer exists, so now that the whole world is trying to kill him, why not let them? The answer is beautiful: If he dies, so do his memories of his wife. You may not have expected to cry, at least not since the dog died in the first movie, but they pull it off: knives to the eyes, bullets everywhere, topped off with an emotional gut-punch. Reeves masterfully conveys the exhaustion and persistence—all of this is only within a few weeks, his wounds from the first movie haven’t even healed.
Picking a John Wick movie to be the “best” is like picking a favorite bite from a plate of nachos. Some will have more of what you like, but it’s all part of the same experience. The only complaint is that we can’t watch Chapter 4 yet.
John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum, R, 131 minutes. See it at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
See it again
PG, 110 minutes, May 22 at Violet Crown Cinema
Local theater listings:
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000