The world of the John Wick films is ludicrous one, a hyperreal cinematic universe in which seemingly half the people on the planet are deadly international assassins. This global network of hired killers operates according to long-standing traditions, traffics in a unified currency of gold coins, and communicates via a hive of pin-up girl technicians operating archaic switchboards (which are also, curiously enough, linked to every assassin’s cell phone). It’s a cloak-and-dagger fantasy of analog information and tangible objects: archives of ink-stamped bound dossiers; unbreakable boons sealed with bloody thumbprints; and open contracts written on blackboards, like in a bookie’s parlor from an old gangster flick. Virtually all criminal activity in this preposterous reality is controlled by an oligarchic council known as the High Table, where syndicates such as the Camorra, Bratva, and Yakuza set the global rules for contract killings. As is mentioned more than once in this franchise, it’s these ironclad principles that separate the business of murder-for-hire from the savagery of animals.
It’s all quite absurd, of course, a world-building effort that reflects the “rule of cool” distortions of big-budget international action cinema, but also the outré, paranoid style of crime-epic comics like 100 Bullets and Wanted. As the John Wick series has superbly demonstrated, selling such silliness to the audience for two hours at a stretch requires just the right amount of deadpan sincerity. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that writer-creator Derek Kolstad, director Chad Stahelski, and star Keanu Reeves treat the franchise’s mythos completely straight, but their approach evinces a professional reverence for the exaggerations of genre filmmaking. Even scene-stealing actors such as Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne modulate their styles in deference to the franchise’s tone, settling on plummy gentility and tattered acidity, respectively.
There’s no room for camp, kitsch, or winking meta-cleverness in John Wick. These are Action Movies that know they are Action Movies, but – and this is a fine yet vital distinction – they never let the viewer know they know they are Action Movies. Whereas other recent pinnacles of the genre have favored apocalyptic momentum (Mad Max: Fury Road) or jaw-dropping human spectacle (the past three Mission: Impossibles), John Wick revels in the uncut, unironic badassery of an unstoppable antihero murdering the shit out of countless, faceless enemies. That essential core of escapist, ultra-violent pleasure – and the cinematic virtuosity with which Stahelski conveys it – is why everything else about the John Wick series works so well, including the franchise’s increasingly baroque mythos of shadow histories and secret societies.
The first film (2014) introduced the viewer to the assassin John Wick (Reeves) a.k.a. Baba Yaga, who successfully extricated himself from the “business” some five years ago to pursue a blissfully anonymous life with his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). When she suddenly falls ill and dies, John’s only companion becomes a beagle puppy, a posthumous gift from Helen to ameliorate his grief and loneliness. Unfortunately, shortly after his wife’s passing, John has a chance encounter with Iosef (Alfie Allen), the spoiled heir-apparent of a NYC-based Russian syndicate. Iosef takes a liking to John’s vintage 1969 Mustang, and the gangster and his goons later break into John’s house to steal the car, beating him viciously and gratuitously killing his dog. This sets off a vengeful rampage for the ages, as John comes out of retirement to murder his way through the entire cartel, including its ruthless patriarch (the late Michael Nyqvist), who happens to be a former employer of John’s services.
In John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), the assassin’s apparent re-entry into the murder-for-hire racket prompts a Camorra princeling named Santino (Riccardo Scarmarcio) to call in an old blood-debt. He orders John to slay a High Table member – the ganglord’s own sister (Claudia Gerini), it turns out – and then promptly double-crosses him. The second feature culminated with John committing an unpardonable sin, executing Santino in the NYC branch of the Continental, a sort of full-service hotel for assassins that is also considered a consecrated sanctuary. “No business on Continental grounds,” is the credo of the hotel’s dapper manager, Winston (McShane), who is obliged to declare John excummunicado for his offense. Winston is courteous enough, however, to give John a one-hour head start before every killer in the world is notified of the $14 million contract that the High Table places on his head.
The third feature – clunkily titled John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – picks up almost exactly where the prior film left off, with John racing through the streets of NYC as the clock ticks down. Short on allies, resources, and safe havens, he attempts to retrieve a rainy-day stash and initiate a desperate stratagem: seek out the Elder who sits above the High Table and beg for a chance to atone for his transgressions. This requires John to somehow get from New York to Morocco, which in turn necessitates that he contact a succession of old associates who have little interest in entangling themselves with a persona non grata. While executing this risky ploy, John is also dodging a seemingly limitless supply of would-be assassins. The most lethal of these is Zero (Mark Dacascos), a street-stall sushi chef who also happens to be a professional killer with an army of ninja minions at his disposal. Zero is elated to have a shot at “the legend” John Wick, and his relentless pursuit of his quarry is as much about fanboy glee as it is professional tenacity.
Meanwhile, the chickens come home to roost for the men who aided John, however tangentially, in the previous film. The High Table dispatches a chilly, humorless Adjudicator (Billions’ Asia Kate Dillon) to NYC, and they give both Winston and streetwise mastermind the Bowery King (Fishburne) a week to set their affairs in order before “relieving” them of their positions. (Winston is being punished for that hour of amnesty, and the Bowery King for providing John with a pistol and seven bullets.) Neither man seems inclined to just roll over and submit to the High Table’s sentence, however. Nor does Winston’s stalwart and immaculate concierge, Charon (Lance Reddick), who is friendly enough with John to care for his new dog while the man is dealing with the whole “international fugitive” thing.
There’s undeniably a mythic appeal to John Wick’s ornate world-building, which in Parabellum rather amusingly incorporates details that seem to have been lifted directly from the Assassin’s Creed video game series. While the story in those games – and the best-forgotten 2016 film adaptation – involves an eternal shadow war tinged with science-fiction and supernatural gobbledygook, John Wick keeps things (relatively) grounded in a matrix of blood-soaked tradition and cold, hard capitalism. Which isn’t to say that Stahelski’s films are realistic – far, far from it – but, rather, that their heightened Action Movie reality drolly masks a resonant spiritual kinship with our own cynical world. This is the case even when John marches, vision-quest-style, into the North African desert in search of the Elder. This character alludes to Rashid ad-Din Sinan – the “Old Man of the Mountain” who led the historical Order of Assassins in 12th-century Syria – although for most viewers he is likely to evoke Prince Faisel as depicted in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Even in the orientalist opulence of the Elder’s desert tent, however, the Faustian bargains feel distinctly corporate: As it turns out, loyalty to the prevailing economic order can only be demonstrated through unfeeling ruthlessness and blood sacrifice.
Of course, the real show in a John Wick film is the breakneck, bone-crunching action, wherein Reeves’ near-superhuman killer punches, stabs, and shoots his way through a truly staggering quantity of goons, all of which is depicted with peerless cinematic lucidity. It’s impossible to overstate how vital Stahelski’s stuntperson résumé – and that of Atomic Blonde’s (2017) David Leitch, who served as an uncredited co-director on the first John Wick – is to the success of the franchise. These are films made by people who truly appreciate the bloody-knuckle craft of cinematic action. This is reflected in the way that every set-piece is filmed: a preference for medium-to-wide shots and long takes; rigorous attention to the practical details of martial arts and firearms; the unflinching, hard-R depiction of every grisly death; and the absence of that bane of 21st-century action cinema, pointless over-editing. (Paul Greengrass’ first two Bourne features remain essential entries in the genre, but, alas, all the wrong people seem to have learned all the wrong lessons from their frenetic visuals.)
The first John Wick was invigorating in part due to the striking counter-example it provided to everything else that is passing for Hollywood action cinema in the 2010s; an illustration of just how tedious, confused, and downright sloppy the genre had become. Chapter 2 upped the ante, not so much by staging more elaborate set-pieces and piling the bodies higher – although it did do those things – but by giving the series’ gritty violence a giallo sensibility, with bolder, downright hallucinogenic colors and more absurdly theatrical settings and motifs. Mario Bava never staged a scene where a naked woman calmly and defiantly slits her wrists and then sinks into a steaming bath in a candlelit crypt – but it sure seems like something he might have done.
With Chapter 3, Stahelski keeps the proceedings fresh primarily by adding new twists on the props and terrain in the fight sequences: a brawl in a warehouse full of antique melee weapons, with hundreds of knives within easy reach; a motorcycle chase that is simultaneously a sword fight; a duel in a three-story private museum made of glass, with digital billboards suffusing the unfolding bloodbath in the glow of luxury consumerism. At various points, John takes out his enemies with handguns, rifles, shotguns, daggers, hatchets, swords, a leather belt, an antique book, and a horse. In Morocco, an old ally, Sofia (Halle Berry) brings another weapon to the table: her pair of flawlessly obedient Belgian Malinois, who rip into foes with predatory gusto. (For the dog-lovers in the audience, this provides a nice bit of revenge-by-proxy for John’s poor, slain beagle.)
Brain-spattering headshots have always been a series staple, but Chapter 3 offers up even more gruesome, visceral violence than previous outings, particularly when it comes to knife injuries. There’s a particularly nasty nod to Lucio Fulci that almost tips into gross-out sadism – even if you haven't see The Beyond (1981), you’ll know it when you see it. This copious gore, as well a few ludicrously protracted fight sequences, suggest that Stahelski has been taking notes from the past decade of Southeast Asian action cinema, with its over-the-top violence and marathon-length brawls. Another tell: The presence of The Raid’s (2011) Yuyan Ruhian as one of Zero’s ninja lieutenants. Genre enthusiasts certainly need no convincing that the dance of steel, bullets, and human bodies can make for great cinema, but Parabellum drives the point home when John visits a ballet theater that doubles as a Belarusian cartel’s headquarters. As a ballerina pulls a ruined nail free from her mangled big toe with a gratuitous squelch, the organization’s Director (Anjelica Huston) proclaims, “Art is pain.” Or, put another way, there is art in pain (and death).
All of this is to say that Parabellum does the things that a John Wick film should do, and at the top-notch level that one has come to expect from the series. The fight choreography and stunt work are center stage, of course, but the film’s incandescent cinematography from Dan Laustsen and the sumptuous production design from Kevin Kavanaugh – both returning talents from Chapter 2 – are no less impressive. Provided the series remains this exciting, inventive, and visually invigorating, and assuming the 54-year-old Reeves is still willing to turn himself into bruised hamburger in the name of entertainment, anyone who appreciates the sweet science of cinematic violence should welcome a new John Wick film. Conversely, it should go without saying that anyone who quails at such violence should absolutely avoid these films. Luckily for viewers in the former category, the epilogue of Parabellum implies that John Wick still has business to attend to.