The first two chapters of the “John Wick” saga — in addition to somehow making top-shelf entertainment out of a suit-wearing, dog-loving dude gun-fu-ing his way through baddies like he’s in a live-action video game — do some of the best world-building of any original franchise this decade. At the end of “Chapter 2,” John Wick (Keanu Reeves) breaks a cardinal rule of this oddly formal crime underworld by killing someone on the grounds of New York’s Continental hotel. Thus in “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” every assassin who loves money (all of them, in other words) aims to kill Wick and collect the $14 million bounty. Continental boss Winston (Ian McShane) gives Wick 50-50 odds of surviving.
(Light spoilers follow.)
And we’re off and running … and riding motorcycles, and riding horses, and dodging knives, and – in one brief nod to a slower pace – trudging through a desert. “John Wick 3” (again directed by Chad Stahelski and written by Derek Kolstad) won’t win any screenplay or acting awards – although Reeves’ extremely casual performance fits the film like a glove – but the action is world-class in both execution and cleverness. Even on our third go-around of this shtick, the audience in my theater could be heard ooh-ing and ah-ing and gasping and laughing; I was often among them.
The locations and set pieces are worthy backdrops for the stunt work. The film starts in a rain-drenched Big Apple and isn’t shy about showing off its “Blade Runner” aesthetic with giant neon signs and huge video screens. I like the mix of old architecture, such as the New York City library, with modern spaces like Winston’s office at The Continental, entirely made out of transparent glass. And I like how Wick and his opponents take advantage of their surroundings. For instance, Wick creatively weaponizes the horses in a stable he stumbles into.
There are several contenders for best fight, but my vote goes to Wick’s team-up with Sofia (Halle Berry) and her two dogs in Casablanca. If there’s a better cinematic fight sequence that heavily involves dogs, I haven’t seen it. “John Wick 3” also gets appealingly less Sisyphean starting at this point. Wick’s task of somehow surviving all these assassins and getting the bounty canceled is still an uphill climb, but at least for a moment he has a teammate, and someone he can connect with over a shared love of dogs.
While this is largely a cut-loose, action-centered movie, the world-building continues. The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) assigns punishments to those who helped Wick in “Chapter 2” — including Laurence Fishburne’s pigeon-loving Bowery King — even if their “help” amounted to not killing Wick. If you’re so inclined, there’s a parable to be found here about the point at which people realize those who mete out law and order are actually the ones causing the problems. The High Table might be in danger of collapsing under its own weight.
But the “John Wick” franchise is as solid as ever, even if I have a slight worry that it’s slipping away from a concern with realism, or at least its polite nod to the idea that Wick is physiologically human. Early in “Chapter 3,” Wick gets knifed in the shoulder and needs to be stitched up. But in later instances, he gets shot and it doesn’t slow him down at all. As stylized as this franchise is, the notion that Wick needs to get patched up is still important, I think.
Stahelski and Kolstad will have plenty of chances to calibrate this increasingly grand story going forward. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is slated for 2021, the spinoff “Ballerina” is in the works, and so is the TV series “The Continental.” It’s safe to say Reeves will back for at least one more turn, but frankly I wouldn’t mind watching more of Sofia and her canine pals doing their thing if that’s where the saga is headed.