John Wick, released back in 2014, was the story of an all-powerful contract killer who executes 86 bad people in retribution for the demise of his puppy. With its main character a cross between Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer and Shaggy in Scooby-Doo, at the time it seemed like a slab of pure, pumped-up escapism. Two sequels later, it now looks comparatively like a piece of gritty social realism. The follow-up introduced bullet-proof designer suits and sumo assassins. And now the gloriously raucous John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum (surely a title no-one anywhere has ever spoken in full) cranks the volume dial still further, deepening the whacked-out mythology and delivering a series of bushido brawls as inventive as they are wincey. And they are plenty wincey.
It’s hard to imagine it all working without Keanu Reeves. There’s a fascinating dichotomy between the John Wick that the villains all whisper about — a man so remorselessly lethal he gives ninjas nightmares — and the mellow insouciance of Reeves, a star with a gentle amble and kindly face. As he strolls nonchalantly from corpse pile-up to corpse pile-up, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him — after decades of films like these starring hulking glowerers such as Steven Seagal or Jason Statham, somehow his zen mien makes it all seem fresh. It’s all part of the Wick films’ bone-dry wit: they are utterly po-faced even when, as is the case within the first ten minutes of Parabellum, the hero is deploying book-fu to eliminate an attacker in the New York Public Library. This is a comedy in which the characters rarely crack a smile. The sheer self-seriousness is exactly what makes it so much fun.
The frequent, grisly dust-ups are magnificently orchestrated.
The world-building, explored tentatively in the first film, is here pushed onward with rousing confidence. It’s become clear that the planet John Wick lives on isn’t ours at all — it’s one in which flip-phones and antiquated computers are still in routine use, in which there is neon everywhere, in which enormous hotels designed for assassins never have to deal with confused tourists stumbling in, and in which one out of every three people is, at any given time, en route to shoot someone in the head. It makes no sense, at all, but go with it and it’s a blast. Never more so than here, with John forced to leave New York and head to the Middle East, at one point going full John Wick of Arabia. (It says much about the effectiveness of these movies’ internal logic that you never question why the desperate, on-the-run hero at no point attempts to don a disguise.) Cult comedian Jason Mantzoukas is underused as the Tick Tock Man (although he does say, “Tick tock”), and the last ten minutes falters somewhat in delivering a satisfying wrap-up, but otherwise it does a strong job of making Wick’s world bigger and richer, even filling in some blanks about his backstory.
It’s with the action, though, where Parabellum truly delivers — you should prepare, if not for war, then at least for the sight of a knife jamming into somebody’s eyeball. The dust-ups, and they are frequent and grisly, are magnificently orchestrated by director Chad Stahelski and his stunt team, shattering more glass than Jackie Chan’s Police Story and throwing in a horse chase that makes the one in True Lies look like a tame trot. The crew from The Raid turn up for a riotous showdown, while Halle Berry makes a big impact with little screen time, as an equally dog-loving acquaintance of John, there not for a lame romance but a blistering set-piece involving canines in flak jackets. “Art is pain, life is suffering,” mutters someone at one point. Well, maybe, but at least in this film pain is endlessly entertaining and suffering something you’ll want to rewind.