John Wick, angel of death, deliverer of headshots, the man in the bulletproof black suit. Even in his own comic book reality, the bizarre underworld of sharp-dressed super-assassins and henchmen introduced in 2014’s John Wick, he is a mythic figure—the boogeyman of the Russian mob, the Energizer Bunny-esque embodiment of “focus, commitment, and sheer fucking will.” Regardless of what one might think of Keanu Reeves’ merits as an actor, the role has always seemed as tailor-made for him as Wick’s stylish formalwear; it might even surpass The Matrix’s Neo as his best bid for the action-movie-cool hall of fame. Wick is a blank, an archetype, an unstoppable avenger in a world of byzantine rules. He once killed three men with a pencil, and in the opening minutes of the unwieldy John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, he dispatches a towering assailant with a library book. Wick being Wick, he makes sure to put it back on the shelf when he’s done.
The original John Wick, which was directed by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (both veteran stuntmen who worked with Reeves on the Matrix movies), introduced the character with a deliriously simple premise: They killed his dog, and now he’s out for revenge. Of course, it was never just about the dog, but about order, cause and effect, the code and the promise of starting over. Besides boasting some of the best-choreographed action sequences of the 2010s (the electro-cool Red Circle nightclub shoot-out being just one highlight), the film also established its own alternate universe, along with the memorable setting of the Continental, a luxurious Manhattan hotel whose manager, Winston (Ian McShane), and aptly-named concierge, Charon (Lance Reddick), catered exclusively to the high-end contract killer demographic.
This world was part of the focus of Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2, a sequel that doubled down on the original’s surrealism and deadpan humor while embracing Wick as an allegorical and existentialist hero, sending him on a Plutonic journey through death and transcendence. (Leitch, in the meantime, has gone on to apply the basic John Wick stylistic template to Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2.) But its artistic ambitions—some might even call them pretensions—and expanded cast of offbeat characters would all be for naught if the movie weren’t also chock full of ecstatic set pieces, from the opening chop-shop demolition derby to a duel with silenced pistols through an unsuspecting crowd to the climax, set in a house-of-mirrors museum installation.
Parabellum opens just moments after the end of Chapter 2 (which is to say, just a few weeks after the events of the first film), with Wick on the run in New York City. He has broken a cardinal rule by spilling blood on neutral ground, and has less than hour left until he is formally declared “excommunicado” by the High Table, the global governing body of crime, with a $14 million bounty (soon bumped up to $15 million) on his head. It’s become something of a joke of this series that everyone seems to be part of this secret underworld—that any nondescript commuter or homeless bum might turn out to be a well-trained assassin. But, as Chapter 2 made clear, that’s kind of the point. The Wick-verse, which owes more than little to the outrageous criminal underworlds of Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, is a place of façades, manners, and obligation. Rules, as one character tells us in Parabellum, “are the only thing that separate us from the animals.”
Expansive world-building is something these movies have always done well, and more stylishly than certain Disney-owned franchises in which characters regularly go to space. One might argue that it’s just one of many cues that the Wick films take from the original Matrix, which Parabellum quotes liberally, beginning with the perpetual downpour that covers many of the early scenes. Here, we are quickly introduced to an assassin school disguised as a dance academy (Wick’s alma mater, it turns out), presided over by a Russian crime boss (Anjelica Huston) who conducts business from a room full of Caravaggios. (The most prominently placed is, naturally, Judith Beheading Holofernes, a depiction of Biblical revenge.) And there’s a deliciously sadistic new villain, too, in the form of Zero (Mark Dacascos), a sushi chef who leads a gang of master bladesmen, and an ally of sorts in Sofia (Halle Berry), a fellow dog-lover who manages the Continental’s affiliate in Casablanca and owes Wick a blood debt.
But then there’s the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), a sort of judge-and-jury sent by the High Table to clean up Wick’s mess and extract penance from everyone who helped him along the way, including Winston and the Bowery King (Reeves’ Matrix costar Laurence Fishburne), the head of a syndicate of panhandlers. Parabellum doesn’t have the irresistible simplicity of the first John Wick or the mythological art of Chapter 2, and though its opening stretch barrels along with the momentum of a surrealistic chase sequence, the arrival of the Adjudicator signals the start of its narrative problems. While Wick escapes to Morocco to strike a deal with “the man who sits above the High Table,” the movie keeps checking back with new and established characters, periodically losing steam in a way that the nearly violence-free 45 minutes that followed the opening of Chapter 2 never did.
Being a John Wick movie, Parabellum still serves up sequences of terrific action, which Strahelski (working again with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, best known for his work with Guillermo del Toro) continues to direct with aplomb, making the most of Reeves’ physical commitment to the role. Wick remains an artist of the Glock, the leg lock, and the contact shot, stripping the killer cool of philosophically inclined hitmen like Collateral’s Vincent and Le Samouraï’s Jef Costello down to the level of movement. His advantage is reflex, and his reloads are smoother than melted butter; he seems to move without having to think about it. Parabellum makes the comparisons to choreographed dance obvious (see: the aforementioned ballet school), yet in many respects, the violence is ickier and more cartoonish than in either of its predecessors; the body count might be in the triple figures, and it involves a lot of skewered, crushed, and blown-off heads.
But though Parabellum delivers at least a couple of action scenes that rank with the best of the series—a throwing-knife fight in which the combatants keep having to pull blades out of their own arms and shoulders to toss back at each other, and a brawl that might set the record for the most times a character has been thrown through a glass display case—there’s a certain fatigue to its two biggest set pieces, both of which pit Wick and his allies against unending waves of faceless henchmen. Wick is unstoppable. Do the movies know where to stop?