With occasional exceptions, most ostensible ‘action’ blockbusters of the last decade have had actual action as a secondary concern. Heavy CG use and frantic editing have overtaken choreography and skilful stunts, with most of the current crop of brilliant beat-em-up movies coming from Asia. There are some bolt from the blue practical action masterpieces like Mad Max Fury Road, but only two franchises are consistently committed to real action – Mission Impossible and John Wick, which has upped its game yet again with this third film, Parabellum. A ballet of carnage that pushes Keanu Reeves to his limits, this John Wick entry is dumber and gaudier than ever, and a huge amount of fun because of it.
Picking up seconds after the second chapter finished, we are reintroduced to a John Wick (Reeves) on the run. He has been excommunicated from his strange network of assassins and resources and is being hunted by every contract killer on the planet, with a $14 million bounty on his head. That’s about it, plot-wise, Wick killing his way up the chain to try and finally free himself from this violent business. More than a story, it’s an excuse to execute the franchise’s wildest action scenes to date.
There’s a deliberate, winking sense of absurdity in how obviously director Chad Stahelski is trying to outdo himself with Parabellum’s set-pieces. An eight-way brawl in a knife museum? Check. Breaking a hulking killer’s neck with Russian literature? Sure. John using a stable full of horses as weapons in hand to hand combat? Here you go. These fights are thrilling and hilarious, the over the top violence inducing laughs of amazement as often as it draws winces. Even though you’re never really meant to believe John could lose any of these fights (Ian McShane’s Winston acknowledging that John vs every other assassin in the world is basically even odds), his victories are still exciting and cathartic.
Long takes and wildly mobile camera work let you experience the full majesty of the action and soak in just how physically impressive Reeves’s work is. At over 50, he’s pulling off stunts that no other American movie star except Tom Cruise (also over 50) could dream of doing, although Halle Berry (again, 50+) gives him a run for his money as John’s ally Sofia. Her combat style incorporates her two Belgian Malinois dogs, adding a vicious but cute new element to the battles as well as some extra worry whenever the mutts are in the firing line.
Derek Kolstad’s script further fleshes out the ridiculous but fun lore of the secret underworld that connects the world’s contract killers, getting us closer to the mysterious High Table of assassins through the ice cold Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) and their personal army. A clan of quasi-ninjas led by John Wick fanboy Zero (Mark Dacascos) and bolstered by some veterans of the Raid movies, they could stand to be more of a threat, but their joy in fighting and strange sense of honour and fair play makes them memorable.
Though some of the over-complexity of the second film has been cut out, Parabellum still feels more bloated than the airtight original, with some of the second act in Morocco dragging and an ending that is too sequel-baity. But these are problems that are swiftly forgotten when you see a motorbike swordfight or Lance Reddick cleaving skulls in two with a combat shotgun or Anjelica Huston overseeing a secret school of ballet and wrestling-specialised killers. There’s so much to love here and the campy mythos of the world still feels fresh and interesting so, as long as Keanu is up for it, bring on more John Wick.