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‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ fights the good fight

May 22, 2019
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Creating a cinematic franchise from scratch is HARD. If it wasn’t, studios wouldn’t be falling all over themselves in an effort to find preexisting intellectual properties to convert to the big screen.

And yet, that’s precisely what has happened with the “John Wick” series, which just saw its third installment – “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” – hit movie theaters nationwide. With this latest offering, the biggest and brashest of the series thus far, star Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stehelski have ensured that the creep of sequel fatigue will have to wait once again.

This new film embraces everything that made the two previous films such a success; the intricate, intimate fight scenes, the sweeping action set pieces, the meticulously constructed mythology, the kinetic hyperstylized aesthetic – it’s all here. And while it’s all much, MUCH bigger, it all scales up comfortably; the smaller moments aren’t lost. If anything, they’re accentuated even more by their massive surroundings.

In short, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” kicks ass in every way you expect … and a few that you don’t.

John Wick (Reeves) is on the run, a bounty on his head. Having broken the rules expressly put forth by the High Table, the shadowy cabal responsible for governing the huge and sprawling assassin’s underworld, he is rendered excommunicado – no longer allowed to seek assistance or services from those bound by the High Table’s laws. He has a brief head start, thanks to the compassionate act of Winston (Ian McShane, “Hellboy”), the manager of the New York City Continental and one of Wick’s few friends.

Wick must seek aid from those he had long since left behind him. He seeks the help of a woman known only as The Director (Anjelica Huston, “Isle of Dogs”), the tyrannical head of a ballet school who has an unexpected connection to Wick’s past. It is only with her assistance that he can make his way to Casablanca, where he hopes to undo what has been done.

Meanwhile, a nameless Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon, TV’s “Gen: Lock”) turns up in the city. She admonishes both Winston and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, “The Mule”) for their assistance of Wick and gives them each a week to either relinquish their respective offices or face dire consequences.

In Casablanca, Wick reunites with an old acquaintance named Sofia (Halle Berry, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”), an assassin who owes John a great debt. With the help of Sofia and her two dogs, Wick is able to seek out the one figure who might be able to lift the massive price off his head. But there are great costs associated with Wick’s desire – costs that even he might prove unable to pay.

Pursuing Wick from NYC to Morocco and back again is Zero (Mark Dacascos, “Maximum Impact”), an assassin of considerable skill who seeks the massive bounty on Wick’s head … while also harboring more than a little admiration for the legend.

With limited resources and no one he can trust, it is up to John Wick and John Wick alone to survive the coming onslaught. And live or die, one thing is for certain – he’s going down fighting.

Usually, series like these are subject to the law of diminishing returns. Usually. Not this one, however. The bar just keeps on getting raised. “Parabellum” is an unrelenting onslaught of action-packed excellence. Sometimes, it’s fists that are flying. Other times, it’s bullets. Still others, it’s some of both. Then you throw in some environmentally-inspired throwdowns – a library book here, an antique knife there. Oh, and there’s the whole thing where John Wick rides a horse while pursued by gun-wielding motorcyclists.

It’s intense, to say the least. And yet, there’s a delicacy to it all. Director Stehelski’s lengthy history with martial arts and cinematic stuntwork have resulted in a filmmaker with an exquisite eye for not just the kinetics of action, but the aesthetics as well. It’s fitting that we get a couple of scenes in a ballet school, because that’s precisely what so much of this movie is – extended, conscientiously-choreographed sequences that are positively balletic. They are as graceful as they are visceral, balancing the brutality with beauty at every turn.

And of course, we get more of the mythology, lingering glances at the wide-ranging operations of this criminal underworld … although Stehelski and company also leave plenty of mysteries unsolved. The details are dished out piecemeal in a way that both gratifies and leaves you wanting more. It’s a fascinating world that has been created here, packed with artistic allusions that reward repeat viewings almost as richly as the vivid action.

At the center of it all is John Wick himself, Keanu Reeves. He is the absolute ideal for a role such as this one. He’s physically gifted, to be sure – there aren’t many who could carry the action load he carries, even with a legion of stunt performers alongside him. But he also has a quiet intensity and bone-dry wryness that encapsulate the character. It’s a rare notion these days, the idea of only one actor being capable of playing a particular role, but I honestly don’t know that anyone else could pull off John Wick.

The supporting cast is phenomenal. McShane brings his usual excellence to Winston. Fishburne is in his scenery-chewing glory as the Bowery King. Berry is only in the movie for a brief stretch, but it’s a blazing-hot run. Same thing with Huston – she’s dynamite. Dillon is wonderfully ambivalent as the bureaucratic Adjudicator, blasé in just the right way. Dacascos is marvelous as Zero, somehow balancing calculating pragmatism with starry-eyed hero worship and making it work. Oh, and I would be remiss without mentioning Lance Riddick (TV’s “Bosch”) whose turn as Continental concierge Charon is one of the most delightful through-threads of the entire series – and who brings it big time here in the third chapter.

“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” is a welcome continuation of what I’d call the most creatively-rendered action franchise of the past decade or more. It is smart and engaged and unapologetically itself. It is unafraid to take big leaps without looking, trusting us to follow. And follow we will, because believe it or not, John Wick just keeps getting better.

[5 out of 5]

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