Nothing can stop John Wick. This is seemingly true for both Keanu Reeves’ out-of-retirement assassin and his film franchise, as the action-packed series blasts its way through an improbably fun third chapter. This entry picks up where the last one left off, with every assassin in New York after John Wick (Reeves) because he has been excommunicated by Winston (Ian McShane), manager of the assassin friendly hotel the Continental. To escape the 14 million dollar bounty on his head, Wick must leverage his network of friends and allies to navigate the complicated hierarchy of assassins and negotiate with a shadowy organization known as the High Table. Oh, and obviously he has to kill many, many bad guys along the way.
The bad guy slaughter is where Parabellum absolutely soars. Like its predecessors, Parabellum exhibits fluid action captured in long takes with a steady camera, emphasizing the talents of both the performers and the stunt choreographers. Watching Wick dispatch dozens of enemies with a variety of precise bullets, knives, punches, and kicks is delightful and engrossing. An especially enjoyable aspect of the action is its inventiveness, as throwing knives, body armor, motorcycles, dogs, and, in a particularly memorable sequence, horses are used to shake up what otherwise could have been more traditional fistfights and shootouts. There are a few moments where a lack of logic compromises the continuity of a scene (if seven goons enter a room together, why do they attack Wick one at a time over five minutes?) but overall Parabellum’s action sequences rank among the best in recent history.
Where the movie falters is in the plot surrounding the action. The world of the John Wick films has grown increasingly convoluted, with the Continental hotel/safehouse from the first movie now acting as part of an international network of Continentals controlled by the Illuminati-esque High Table and subject to their mostly unexplained rules. The Table also apparently controls a Romani dance school/mob led by the Director (Anjelica Huston), a gold refinery managed by Berrada (Jerome Flynn), and the Bowery, an organization controlled by the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) who uses pigeons and homeless people to do…something. All these factions are connected by at least three different types of assassin currency, which may or may not be accepted depending on the scenario, but often require self-harm for some reason. All of this combines to create a nearly incomprehensible plot where, despite the constant discussion of universal rules, every character seems to be operating with their own specific rulebook.
Compounding these issues is a lack of clarity about any of the characters’ motivations. John Wick’s simple need for revenge in the first film has been replaced by a complicated mix of revenge, survival, penance, rebellion, and soul searching. It is never clear exactly what his (or any characters’, really) goals are beyond surviving the next action sequence, leading to a muddled, aimless, and occasionally pointless storyline. It becomes obvious as the movie progresses that the point of dialogue scenes is not to move the story forward but to make every character seem more badass. This puts a lot of pressure on the actors to sell over the top dialogue (often in foreign languages to justify stylized subtitles) as important. Series veterans Reeves and McShane as well as newcomers Halle Berry and Asia Kate Dillon perfectly ride the line between campy badassery and seriousness, but others struggle to believably portray their characters. For example, Mark Dacascos plays Zero, a rival assassin who bafflingly switches between mysterious stoicism and goofy fanboy-ishness, often in the middle of scenes, while Jerome Flynn uses a bizarre accent that distracts from anything he’s actually saying.
The John Wick movies have always been about watching Keanu Reeves kill lots of bad guys while saying badass things to a variety of gangsters, assassins, and their helpers. Parabellum sticks to that formula with mostly positive results. The action scenes are virtuosic and should more than satisfy fans of the franchise and of action movies in general. Reeves continues to shine as an action star, giving a performance just grounded enough to pull the audience through the more unbelievable plot elements and world building. Parabellum is the rare third movie in a franchise to have not lost what made the original film great. However, if future installments (and yes, there will be future installments) wish to continue this greatness, they will need to tighten up the plot and the characters to give the audience more than just great action scenes to enjoy.