Parabellum is what you want it to be, despite the narrative sometimes getting sidetracked. If Keanu keeps landing the punches, John Wick still has mileage yet.
Si vis pacem, para bellum. As the Latin maxim goes: if you want peace, prepare for war. That’s what that slightly ostentatious sub-subtitle primarily signifies, yet it’s probably worth noting that the moniker has also been taken up by various firearms devices in the past. Certainly, if you enjoy unbridled gunplay, John Wick: Chapter 3 delivers in spades. The strength of the series, however, lies not with guns but in hand-to-hand combat, specifically the ability of its star Keanu Reeves – now in his mid-50s – and director Chad Stahelski in producing authentic, intense and supremely focused fight scenes that can’t be matched on a visceral level by the quick-cut conventions of many of its action cinema contemporaries. Chapter 3 may fall into a state of first-person shooter numbness every now and then. Still, the film’s most satisfying set pieces play out in such a mesmerising fashion that it is hard not to be swept up in the choreographed mayhem.
By the end of Chapter 2, ex-hitman John Wick had found himself in a sticky spot. Having been declared ‘excommunicado’, making him an exile from the criminal underworld, and with a $14m bounty placed on his head by the omnipotent High Table, you wouldn’t blame Ol’ Johnny Boy for giving up. If we’ve learnt anything from this burgeoning franchise though, it’s that Wick is usually inclined to never stop…never stopping. Chapter 3 picks up almost exactly where the previous film left off. The first 30 minutes is a blisteringly paced opener as John tries to make it out of New York the only way he knows how to: fight. We knew Keanu could pull his weight as an action star long before John Wick came along, the man having serious training in a number of martial arts, but with age it becomes more and more impressive how committed he remains to realistic stunts, i.e. actually doing a lot of the punching himself. Stahelski’s camera clearly enjoys the luxury that Reeves’ skills allow for, keeping a tight focus on the actor with a limited amount of cuts. The Bourne trilogy showed that frenetic editing can create a certain energy if properly utilised; its successor, the Taken series, ran this thoroughly into the ground to the point where it required 14 shots to capture Liam Neeson climbing over a fence. It is by no coincidence that Chapter 3 features a couple of actors from The Raid, with both series heralding a return to a distilled form of action that lets the performers do the talking.
We have come so far now from the humble beginnings of the original Wick, a reasonably self-contained story that could easily have been a one-and-done situation if it hadn’t struck a chord with audiences. Its sequels have explored deep into the hyperreal underworld that serves as neon backdrop to the action. Chapter 3 goes even further than 2, with a number of new characters brought to the fore. The worldbuilding is competent enough, yet sees John sidelined for good 15-minute stretches at times. When he’s not on screen, there’s no substitute we can root for. The film noticeably flags during this middle section, which largely revolves around Asia Kate Dillon’s adjudicator for the High Table dealing out penance to those who have wronged. Halle Berry is a fun but underutilised addition with no real character. Mark Dacascos’s Zero is the most successful new face, a by turns steely assassin and adoring Wick fanboy bringing some of the biggest laughs. The deadpan comedy becomes more prominent in this sequel, with the sheer extremity of some of the kills, whether by book, knife or horse, as likely to make you laugh as they are to make you wince. It feels like a decent middle third sandwiched by a terrific beginning and close, though as long as Keanu is on the move it’s usually dynamite.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019), directed by Chad Stahelski, is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate UK Ltd, certificate 15.