If John Wick spun an amusingly louche variation on Orpheus in the underworld and John Wick: Chapter 2 artfully aestheticized pain on par with Edgar Allan Poe, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum envisions The Divine Comedy as inspiration for a themed edition of Chutes and Ladders. It careens its titular assassin from paradise’s zenith to hell’s gutter across 131 minutes … and, in its assertion of literary knowledge as power, even lets John snap a human spine across the sturdy spine of Dante’s work.
The uninitiated may wonder just how six hours of story have been spun from “that one where they kill Keanu Reeves’ dog and he kills them.” And some detractors have groused about the introduction of the High Table, an Arthurian / Shogunate governing body of the assassin brotherhood, and its complex codes and rules into the original’s spartan simplicity — claiming it’s just life-support window dressing for beautiful beatdowns. But if the heart’s not strong and the circulation weak, why even move? Instead, this series has evolved into a thrilling, morbid meditation on mortality that mimics modern dance movements while rendering explicit the medium’s inherent, abject violence.
Parabellum’s first hour is fulsome in its fury and nearly flawless, picking up precisely where Chapter 2 ended. It’s not just a rainy night in New York. God himself weeps for John Wick — on the run with his new pooch after excommunication by the High Table for doming an odious foe at New York’s Continental, a hotel on whose grounds the High Table has strictly forbidden any murder business. It’s the latest instance in which John has been clapped awake from his foolish dream — separating his supernaturally feared assassin’s cred from the very modest, mortal humanity he claims to desire. John’s offense is punishable by death, so why wasn’t he killed on the spot like past rule-breakers? Benevolent Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) has a soft spot for John and gave him an hour’s head start before opening a global $14 million bounty.
Not even a man of such sundry resources can easily outrun that, but Winston lays even odds for Wick against the world. Indeed, Wick at his most improvisational is the series at its most ingenious and invigorating — caroming from a public library to an antique weapon store and a stable before Wick even has a minute to pause and recalibrate. In this uninterrupted sequence, one kill prompted a paroxysm of paralyzing, appreciative laughter from me … and then director Chad Stahelski (Reeves’ longtime stuntman, returning from the first two) made the same thing happen again, only better. You’ll know it when you see it. You’ll feel the same way. It’s glorious.
After a brief break with a Belarusian ballet mistress (Anjelica Huston) that also provides a bit of biographical backstory for our hero, Wick reveals his plan: Circumvent the High Table rules by making an entreaty to a man who rests comfortably above them. “How can you fight the wind, smash the mountains, bury the ocean, escape the light?” Huston asks Reeves, her metaphors unintentionally cluing you into how the movie eventually embraces excess to a slight detriment.
John’s plan leads him to Casablanca, where he’ll need the help of Sofia (Halle Berry), a former colleague who now manages Morocco’s Continental. Sofia is reluctant, but duty-bound, to assist John, and brings along her … uh, quite resourceful Belgian Malinois dogs. They are unleashed in unbelievably astonishing ways in a pas de deux of flesh-rending proportions that will have you considering whether you would, in fact, enjoy an entire movie of these dogs fucking people up. (Spoiler alert: You would.) It’s also a treat to see Berry finally — after 20 years of anticlimactic teases in superhero costumes or barely any clothing at all — command a fight sequence in which she gets as long, strong and confident a showcase as her male co-star.
It’s a stronger likelihood for Sofia to get her own spinoff. But you know what? Give the Wickiverse its own streaming service. There’s potential for almost every character introduced. Another newbie, the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), is making things quite difficult back home for Winston and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), the analog autocrat who rules subterranean New York and who also aided John en route toward his murderous no-no.
Dillon, a non-binary performer with the German word for “empathy” so ironically tattooed on their neck here, comes off as the world’s most lethal HR executive. They are not a murderer, but their withering vocal fry could easily electrocute an entire city block, and they intend to clean house of any compatriot who offered John even a scintilla of safe haven.
It’s an admirable 180 from the heavies of the first two films, and Dillon does their part to make you believe they will bring order to chaos by any means necessary. As counterpart brawn to their brain in tracking John, the Adjudicator hires Zero (a terrific Mark Dacascos), whose hard edge hides an unexpectedly hilarious hero worship for his quarry.
Action aficionados will recognize Shinobi 1 and 2, Zero’s hype men, as Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman of the Raid films. Whatever steps Parabellum fumbles can generally be forgiven in part because this is a Hollywood film that finally capitalizes on the ownage these men can deliver; their eventual clash with Reeves is staged and scripted like the combat catnip you crave.
Setting aside this fight, Parabellum is far more front-loaded than its forebears. That’s not to say several hundred people aren’t killed in the second half, but the end result tilts a bit more toward exhausting than electrifying — even if what becomes a stuntman sizzle reel surpasses most other action offerings today. And perhaps it was inevitable for Parabellum to start recycling its predecessors’ choreography. Playing out in the Executive Lounge — an expansive heart of glass at the New York Continental’s center — the long finale rehashes the thematically perfect and punitive modern-art hall of mirrors in Chapter 2 to more destructive, but diminishing returns. (Fair warning: A preceding shootout in the lobby might also need to come with a photosensitivity alert.)
The sequence is also giant product placement for Carl F. Bucherer watches. Maybe they are the preferred timepieces of trained killers. It’s also a subliminal reminder, as Parabellum putters past two hours, that it has become clockwork regimen and the longest Wick hasn’t necessarily burned the cleanest. It’s also an awkward choice to toss in three additional screenwriters alongside Derek Kolstad, who initiated the idea and penned Chapter 2 on his own. Other than adding more characters, what have they really contributed?
They certainly haven’t given Reeves anything notably emotive to do in Parabellum (the Latin translation of which is delivered at the right moment) — essentially abandoning John’s existential panic and thematic weight in favor of constant invocations of choice and consequence. At least Reeves recalibrates in a physical sense, moving with less of a danseur’s poise and confidence than before and more like a man on the ropes but still with some sweet-science legerdemain to let fly. Even though one character’s eye-rolling return undercuts its raw, demonic power, the film’s spot-on final image reminds us that while friendship and love are traditional to us, they are — to a man like John — something behind glass to break in case of an emergency. Maybe he shattered it at the wrong time. Maybe making the choice at all has shattered him.
Ostensibly, we’re here to watch someone run through a horde of henchman with any weapon necessary. But Parabellum makes a point to mention the commerce of relationships amid all its carnage, and Stahelski, Kolstad and Reeves have always known John will save his sharpest blade to train on himself. Even as Parabellum winds down with more enervation than energy, you remain invigorated by where the next chapter in the saga could go … and confident that these are the right people to keep it going.
All of the John Wick movies play like 10-year scotch chased with PBR. Even if this particular back half feels at times like shotgunning a tallboy, you will not soon forget the crisp burn of that scotch given to you by bartenders you know you can still trust.