If the first chapter in the John Wick chronicles was refreshing and captivating, and the second was bigger and more violent, then the third, Parabellum, completes the circle taking from the films before it: a surprisingly amount of novelty and a very, very high body count.
There are any number of wise attempts to make the beautiful and bloody fight sequences that have made the John Wick franchise so popular appear new and exciting here in the third, maybe final, chapter. And for the most part they all pay off.
Parabellum picks up literally minutes after Chapter 2 ended, which saw John Wick given an hour to do, well, anything, before his assassin services are stripped and a lot of people around the world are looking to collect a $14 million bounty on his head. The rain falls hard, blood seems to still be pouring from Wick’s recent wounds, and the fighting commence swiftly and intensely. Lest you forget some of the earlier scenes in this action series, this film reminds you quickly that it’s not for the faint of heart. Bones crack, knives cut deep, jaws break, and eyeballs are mighty vulnerable – and that’s the first 20 minutes or so. You might squirm, squirm, and let out other guttural reactions to some sudden, and not so sudden, deaths. You’ve been warned.
John (Keanu Reeves) fights his way through the first quarter of the film, a prologue of sorts it seems, before a plan and plot reveals itself. The High Table, a sort of clandestine board of trustees that rules over this world of assassins and demands fealty, is looking to punish those who have may not have acted in the High Table’s best interest on the whole, Wick breaking the rules and killing someone on sacred grounds thing. The Adjudicator, a new face in the series played by non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon, meets with our cast of returning secondary characters (Charon, Winston, Bowery King), handing out assessments and ultimatums, and enlisting a terrifying new cadre group of sword-wielding slicers and dicers. All the while John seeks out the entity at the very top who can maybe reverse his fortune.
A lot of choices made by director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad play out with more satisfaction that standard sequel fare – this iteration doesn’t so much expand the world envisioned by the second, but explores it. John makes his way to Casablanca where he meets with an old indebted friend (Halle Berry) and her two faithful servants – the four of them battling their ways through a compound is one of the most exhilarating scenes in the franchise in part because of the new blood, the new setting, and an on-point thematic callback.
Also because Halle Berry gets her turn to show off fighting skills like Reeves has done. An overlooked quality of these films is the effortless way they are inclusive, something that seldom happens in action flicks where men are masculine and women are often sex objects or flailing on the sidelines. John Wick and its sequels care not about gender identity, age, or race when it comes to who is a talented fighter and a member of this assassin’s world. Significantly, because the movie is executed to such a convincing and entertaining effect, you don’t notice that worthy parts are given to people of all backgrounds. It’s an easy thing to do, but it’s also rare and refreshing.
So after a sojourn through the desert, John returns to New York to sets up a race to the Continental and a showdown between he and his allies against the High Table’s goons. There are motorcycles, sabres, heavy duty body armor, Vivaldi, and some gorgeous scenery.
The Wick series has always put an important focus on cinematography and elegance in the fighting chaos. The action sequences are meant not only to be easy to follow, but also viscerally exhausting as we go along punch for punch. The filmmakers aren’t trying here to be clever: the fights take place against some stunning environments, including one inside some sort of glass museum with a color-changing digital backdrop. Even faceless mercenaries move and act in a strange, hypnotic fashion in a smoke-filled, dimly light hotel.
It may be a bit on the nose, but it’s unbelievably satisfying and another example of positive fan service in a sequel delivered this year. Even that the High Table seems to have people everywhere, and that this group of demanding, ruthless bureaucrats that rule everything seems like an easy but fitting parable to our real world.
But this is pure escapist, violent, action enjoyment. Even during a few of the final fight sequences, John’s opponents exclaim how excited they are to fight such a legendary mercenary. There are so many moments of sudden laughter because of how the film is both ridiculous and exhilarating at the same time. This film involves serious people doing serious, impressive work, but it doesn’t mean they don’t know what’s really, really fun.