John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum - Review

The best in the series so far.

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John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum may have the best opening 30 minutes of any film this year. Keanu Reeves soars higher than ever in this miracle of a franchise, and with newfound help, moves the series’ spotlight beyond massive set-pieces and into its greatest strength: fantastic fight choreography.

Before you ask, yes, there is still a lot of narrative to John Wick. The High Table exists, various assassins have personal vendettas against John, and an instantly hateable “adjudicator” is the laughable main villain. The story is as clunky as ever, so let’s just push it to the side for now. On the third attempt, writers are still tinkering with what the series should be; this was the issue with Chapter 2, which played like a lengthy epilogue to the invigorating original. Fights were alright, but the urgency had gone, and the story wasn’t doing it any favors.

Chapter 3 delivers almost immediately, setting up John’s impending “excommunicado” status with a nicely cut montage and a handful of great one-on-one fights; a $15 million contract is placed on his head, and every assassin in New York is pining to collect it. The ensuing action, teased at the end of Chapter 2, is as satisfying as anything Reeves has done since The Matrix; the early, close-quarters encounters are brutal exercises, free-form dances rather than precisely-orchestrated ballets.

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The throwing-knife fight is a particularly high point, but Chapter 3 doesn’t settle for doling out its best fights in ascending order. Some of the most visceral scenes occur halfway through, on a motorcycle, or in a shatter-glass stocked compound. They’re not all-around perfect; near the end things get a bit too corny, and the final fight between John and a wise-cracking hitman shows signs of wear. The massive set-pieces in the John Wick series have often been hit-or-miss, pushing excitement through sheer body count or bullets fired; the first fight in Chapter 3 involves two guys and a book, so there’s really no reason to say that bigger is better anymore.

In terms of additions, Parabellum makes strides. Halle Berry is a highlight, though the stoic levity Reeves captures is somewhat lost in her biggest scene. Her accompanying dogs fill some of that void, keeping the canine-revenge plot that started all this alive, but there’s a difference between sticking 10 throwing knives into one guy and shooting 100 guys with 1,000 bullets; there’s a certain humor to the intimate fights, like a joke between the two combatants that’s established at the start and ramped up to the point of insanity. The major action moments start at that point, and have nowhere to go but down.

Like the biggest fights in Parabellum, new elements take time to develop, and most of the time characters are too dead to reach a point of deliverance on their arcs. Beefing up the plot is, unfortunately, a major focus of Parabellum’s middle half. John goes to the desert, re-pledges his fealty, runs into a few old friends; the bar set by the beginning of the film is just too high for anything else to climb, and if the action-packed ending fails to reach that mark, the dime-a-dozen story doesn’t help either.

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As was before, the John Wick series is reliant on a fight + story + fight = good action movie formula, but it continues to ignore its second greatest asset: characters. Wick doesn’t need any more developing, but throw-away characters like Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King and Ian McShane’s Continental Hotel manager could use a lot more screen-time, preferably not spent talking in loud voices and drinking scotch. John Wick is for action-heads, for those who saw Mission Impossible: Fallout and thought it should be more like The Raid. Parabellum is the best so far, and with the hint of a 4th film and a bountiful box-office, hopefully we’ll live to see the day when the series sheds the fat.