The “John Wick” movies come with a blueprint. We know there will be sharply choreographed, creatively efficient violence. There will be a brooding Keanu Reeves killing dozens. There will be eye-popping stunts and a network of sharply dressed assassins. There will be kung fu.
Does “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” break the formula? Director Chad Stahelski, who has directed all the movies in the series, wouldn’t dare.
The film picks up directly where the second film ended, with a bloodied John Wick (Reeves) running through New York, moments away from being declared “excommunicado” from the secret assassin society the High Table because of a murder in the Continental Hotel. With a $14 million bounty on his head, everyone in New York wants to kill him, so now Wick has to kill everyone in New York.
True to the blueprint, the first two acts of “Parabellum” are a thrill of adrenaline and originality, the fights and stunts dreamed up by former action choreographer Stahelski escalating to increasingly absurd and operatic heights. There is a jaw-dropping sequence with a book, and a scene with knives that renders all other knife fights meaningless.
But like the other two movies in the series, the third act is an interminable slog of violence that leaves one feeling numb and number.
The film feels like former stuntman Stahelski’s demo reel, with a few growled lines of dialogue from Wick and some crisp bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo exchanged between the representatives of the Continental and a stern High Table adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who’s been assigned to clear up the whole Wick mess.
There’s a rich mythology in the eminently stylish Wickiverse, but “Parabellum” barely scratches the surface. We see a strange office, manned by rockabilly pin-up-style secretaries shouting out status updates while chalking them on a board. What’s that all about? Wick, seeking shelter, heads to an old theater where Anjelica Huston marshals a combination ballet/wrestling school. But “Parabellum” frustratingly offers only morsels of the strange world that birthed him.
Wick has an unstoppable will to live. He kills only in self-defense. But when there’s a huge bounty on your head, a lot of people are going to try to kill you. What keeps him going? That question is answered, to poetic and tragic ends, when he says he lives simply to remember his wife and pup. Their memory lives in him, so if he lives, they live.
The startlingly emotional admission is the one thing that shakes up the predictable proceedings of “Parabellum,” and it matches the sorrowful soulfulness with which Reeves imbues his character. In this ballet of bloodshed, this hail of headshots, this monsoon of murder, it’s easy to become desensitized. But Reeves always makes the more interesting choice — the harder choice — and he chooses to put the humanity of John Wick front and center.