Film Review | John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum: On the run and upping the body count

It’s all-out war in the third installment of the Keanu Reeves-starring, Chad Stahelski-directed, John Wick-franchise, and those with a stomach for imaginatively choreographed balletic violence are in for a wicked treat

With Marvel Studios having completed their first significant stretch of shared universe madness now that Avengers: Endgame has made its way to theatres, there’s a sense of anticipation as to what the next stage of this cultural juggernaut will be. Thankfully, it’s not the only game in town – much as it presents itself as such – which is more than amply proven by the welcome presence of the third installment of the John Wick franchise.

Once again starring Keanu Reeves – once derided for his wooden delivery, now celebrated as a nice guy who has graciously and gracefully owned his thespian faults and crafted them into stoic gold – and directed by Chad Stahelski, it continues a winning streak for the violent action franchise, which takes a simpler but no less effective approach to the baroque world-building popularised by the likes of Marvel.

Now being forced on the run after a transgression in the previous film had him excommunicated from the ‘High Table’ of assassins, John Wick (Reeves) has a $14 million bounty on his head, and not even Winston (Ian McShane), the head of the Continental hotel that is the refuge of all assassins, can help him.

With an army of elite, highly trained warriors on his trail, the otherwise formidable Wick has his work cut out for him, but he pins his hopes on a trip to Casablanca, where he’s sure to find an unlikely ally in Halle Berry’s Sofia. However, the stern authority figure who simply goes by ‘The Adjudicator’ (Asia Kate Dillon) is keen to clamp down on Wick by any means necessary.

Positing a world in which murderous bounty hunters are not only plentiful, but fully ‘unionised’ while they enjoy a neutral ‘safe space’ in the Continental hotel, has always been a part of the John Wick universe, and this is something that has nudged what is otherwise a nostalgic action flick recalling ‘80s and ‘90s genre fare into more rarefied fantasy territory. With this third installment, that mythic element is taken to the next level, with Wick’s near-invincibility embraced as a matter of course, while our hero is also made to undergo a desert-bound spirit quest of sorts which makes it clear that Stahelski and his screenwriters – Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams – have fully accepted their franchise to be an entry in what could be deemed the ‘Urban Fantasy’ genre. The returning presence of Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King – the veteran actor once again hamming up with gusto as the slum lord of the assassins – and the slick, legalistic cruelty of The Adjudicator – an aptly liminal role for non-binary performer Asia Kate Dillon – only communicate further that we’re in a heightened, fairy-tale world with no real claim on mundane reality.

Thankfully, far from being a softening distraction, this only serves to enrich and widen the visceral pleasure of what a lot of us have come to enjoy from the John Wick universe. The bone-crunching action is very much present and accounted for, and cranked up further by Wick’s predicament as prey. An early sequence in a library sets the tone of wicked playfulness – a book of Russian folk tales is employed as a weapon: further testament to the archetypal reach of the series, apart from everything else – and this is soon followed by a breathtaking sequence of knife-throwing kung-fu that is likely to go down as one of the most ambitious and satisfying in a series bursting at the seams with so many.

Another reminder that we’re dealing with an embarrassment of riches here? The role of occult gypsy mentor to the wayside ronin that Wick has become falls to none other than Anjelica Huston, and judging by her sneering-but-spirited performance, it appears that the seasoned and celebrated actress is as enchanted by the Wick-verse as most us seem to be.

The verdict

Expanding on its world with a tightly-focused and clever simplicity that allows more than ample room for its trademark bloodbath-balletics to shine through, the third installment of the little action franchise that could continues to plough its way through the competition with violent, witty elan. A satisfying ride from start to finish, Reeves and Stahelski’s baby has grown up and taken the world by storm, while betraying zero signs of franchise fatigue so far.