You can wait around and hope for a bigger, badder burst of action fireworks than John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, but you’d be kidding yourself. Wick 3, starring Keanu Reeves in the role he was born to play, hits you so hard in the thrill zone that instead of feeling exhausted when director Chad Stahelski calls a halt at 130 minutes, you’re panting for Chapter 4. Parabellum, by the way, is Latin for “prepare for war.” As if any fan is prepped for less.
Number three picks up right where the previous movie left off: Wick is still the hit man no one will let retire. Fate keeps pulling him back in. In his 2014 origin story, the retired killer-for-hire was infuriated because the bad guys stole his prized 1969 Mustang and then killed his puppy. In the 2017 sequel, the antihero had acquired a new pet and new enemies at the High Table, a society of the criminal elite. But Wick broke the rules. Not the dress code — even in furious battle, Wick is always elegantly attired in a dark suit and tie. But he did the unforgivable by slaying a man at the Continental, a chic Manhattan hotel for the crème de la crème of assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane, dispensing martini-dry wit), who strictly enforces the rule that there will be no “business conducted” at the Continental. Ever. For breaking that ordinance, Wick is now excommunicado, with a $14 million price on his head. Every killer-for-hire, skilled and amateur, is out to take him down. There’s one on every corner — kind of like Starbucks.
How’s that for a plot starter? It’s a headscratcher that it took four writers to concoct the mostly dialogue-free exchanges. No matter. It’s the bristling beauty of the fight sequences that electrify the series, with cinematographer Dan Laustsen and editor Evan Schiff performing well beyond the call of duty. Cue a gun-fu battle at the New York Public Library that belongs in the time capsule for all-time great cinematic death matches. High praise to Reeves, who trained in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and to Stahelski, who worked as a stunt double for Reeves on The Matrix films and stages the stunts with a choreographic skill unseen since the glory days of John Woo.
Speaking of ballet, Anjelica Huston shows up as a dance mistress with eyes that flash like threats and a reluctance to help this fugitive escape his fate. But when Wick flashes the marker she gave him — “You are bound and I am owed” — she spirits him off to Morocco. Enter Halle Berry as Sofia, not for the romance you might expect being that they’re in Casablanca, but to fulfill another favor. Years ago, Wick had rescued Sofia’s daughter from a fate worse than … well, you get the drift. She seems indifferent to his fate until the bad guys attempt to kill her German shepherds. Of course the pet haters must die. No animal shelter anywhere offers more love and protection to dogs than the Wick series.
Why are so many of John’s friends reluctant to help him? Because the High Table will exact vicious revenge on anyone who lifts a finger to advance his cause. Even Laurence Fishburne — Morpheus to Reeves’ Neo — can’t use his power as king of the Bowery bums to assist. The watchdog on Wick’s case, a.k.a. the Adjudicator, is played by Asia Kate Dillon — Taylor Mason on Billions — and the nonbinary actor brings just the right blend of mirth and menace to the role.
The main action kicks in when Wick returns to New York and attempts to clear his name. The Adjudicator is having none of it, bringing on a sushi chef named Zero (Mark Dacascos, superb at winking insolence) to carve Wick to pieces with the help of two sous-chefs (Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian). Fists, knives, guns and anything handy are the weapons of choice as they pursue Wick from Grand Central Station (watch out, kids!) to the glass offices at the Continental. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Reeves and Stahelski pull out all the stops. Yes, the ending is a shameless cliffhanger. It doesn’t matter. The wow factor in Parabellum is off the charts.