Ever seen a guy use a horse as a murder weapon before? In John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, you’ll receive tutelage in this and many other creative killing techniques. My reactions to the lava-spray of gore throughout this movie included a lot of cringing but even more laughter. Extreme violence is hilarious.
No need to write in to tell me that this isn’t true of actual violence; I’m not a psychopath. The John Wick universe, though, isn’t an unsettling meditation on savagery but more like a six-hour vacation in Itchy & Scratchy Land, “the violentest place on Earth.” An exquisite appreciation of fantasy violence is what the John Wick films are all about, typified by the gun-sommelier scene in John Wick 2.
That film ended with Keanu Reeves’s impeccably suited title character, a super-assassin trying to extricate himself from a secret assassination society, getting dinged for a rule violation. Kill all you want, the bosses tell him, but do it on company property and you’re rendered “excommunicado.” The entire world of secret super-assassins was activated against poor Wick and a bounty placed on his head. This is, I suppose, a lesson in why it can be bad to get too attached to your dog, the murder of which lit Wick’s fuse.
At the outset, this sequel promises to be an entire movie of chasing and fighting, an especially sanguinary response to Elmore Leonard’s famed storytelling dictum: leave the boring parts out. A team of screenwriters focuses almost exclusively on cool ways one man might murder another — with, say, a volume of Dante or a blade to the eyeball. One superbly staged fight takes place in an aisle full of display cases stocked with sharp instruments, another in a horse stable, another in the stacks of the New York Public Library’s main branch. The director, Chad Stahelski, is a former kickboxer. He wasn’t hired to faff around with character arcs.
Following a few smashing fight scenes that combine martial arts with an inventive array of props, though, the film settles down in a more conventional and not particularly compelling middle. After a visit with a Russian ballet instructor (Anjelica Huston) who is part of the hidden-in-plain-sight secret society, Wick slips away to Casablanca for some more chatter, with an old frenemy named Sophia (Halle Berry), also part of the network, and a so-so fight with uninteresting thugs who look like extras from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sophia is thrown in for no reason except to check the box marked Bada** Female Character, and the writers give us no cause to take any interest in her because they themselves aren’t interested in her.
Combining the idea of a secret parallel world and a secret, medieval religious group gives the John Wick films a kind of Matrix–meets–Da Vinci Code vibe, complete with Laurence Fishburne as an avuncular figure who aids our hero (and also communicates using carrier pigeons, because they have no IP addresses). But in lieu of an intriguing trail of clues there is much jabbering about the make-it-up-as-they-go-along rules of the clandestine order, delivered by a functionary called the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who serves on behalf of the High Table and also announces sudden policy shifts. Dillon is one of those lackluster types who think being a total blank is the way to seem hard-boiled. Picture a decent actor such as Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith of The Matrix) doing her lines and things become much more intriguing.
You might also do better for a chief antagonist than the sushi chef-cum-ninja named Zero (Mark Dacascos), who interrupts his attempts to murder Wick to tell the latter he’s a big fan. He, unlike dozens of other fighters who serve as meat for the grinder that is John Wick, is given a tiny slice of personality, but there’s no depth to him or anyone else. Other killers simply stay their hands when they have a chance to dispatch Wick. Why? Because they’re the villains and don’t get to win.
So the writing is video-game thin. But if you take the film in the spirit in which it is intended, as a series of elaborately choreographed set pieces, it’s thrilling enough, at least at the beginning and the end. It’s a bit touchy about being perceived as what it is, which is assassination porn, visual junk food. Which is why it throws in pretentious flourishes like intercutting a fight scene with a ballet and quoting Dante. Parabellum. Fancy word, eh? Latin. From the phrase Si vis pacem, para bellum, which appears on the medallion of the secret society. If you want peace, prepare for war. A yearning for peace is hardly the message of this movie. Was a yearning for chastity the message of 50 Shades of Grey?