Alas, nothing in today’s movie-land stays minor-key. Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick” has quickly spouted into a three-and-counting series, the latest of which is “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.” What was once a taut, minimalist action movie with an appeal predicated on low expectations and leanness has grown into a franchise with a typically overcooked subtitle and de rigueur world-building (the film’s press notes reference “the Wickian universe”).
“Parabellum” finds Stahelski, Reeves’ former stunt double, who has directed all three films, moving further beyond Wick’s hard-boiled origins and into a more extravagant action thriller. In its ever-expanding fictional realm, “Parabellum” isn’t so dissimilar from a superhero movie, only one with way more blood, a much higher body count and, yes, righteously better action scenes.
It starts right where we left off with Reeves’ uber-hitman. He’s on the run in New York, having violated the fiercely enforced rules of the High Table, an international assassins’ guild that sets combat protocol for a vast criminal netherworld, including that no “business” should be conducted in the Continental, the Manhattan hotel presided over with panache by its manager, Winston (Ian McShane).
Ruthless as the world of John Wick is, it’s a rigidly ordered one, full of slavish fidelity to a warrior code that’s part samurai, part magician. There’s a $14 million bounty on Wick’s head, just posted by the High Table, which has begun a soon-to-conclude countdown to make Wick “excommunicado.” For every other bounty hunter, it’s open season on John Wick. And in these films, one lurks down every alley; the ratio of regular person to hit man is, like, 2 to 1.
From the get-go, the visual landscape of “Parabellum” – a nighttime New York downpour with dashes of neon all around – is vivid, nearly turning Times Square into Hong Kong. With little time to go, Wick heads to where all hit men go in times of need: the library. Beginning with the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library (where Wick, wielding a tome pulled from the stacks, fights a giant played by 76ers backup center Boban Marjanovic), “Parabellum” excels in its New York locations. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen (“The Shape of Water”) and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh (“The Dark Knight Rises”) are the movie’s most potent weapons.
With pursuers all around, Wick stealthily seeks out old associates for help, including Anjelica Huston, as a kind of ballet-and-wrestling instructor, and Halle Berry, who has a fiefdom in Casablanca and a few lethal dogs that severely test the bounds of “good boy.” He appeals to them on the basis of old bonds that, he hopes, supersede the decrees of the High Table.
Along with returning co-stars Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick and McShane, “Parabellum” is well-stocked in top-flight character actors. No movie that includes Fishburne bellowing “I am the Bowery!” isn’t without its acting pleasures – including Reeves himself, who has found in Wick a comfortable match for his spare style and powerfully still physical presence. Also added to the mix here is Asia Kate Dillon (“Billions”) as the Adjudicator, sent to arbitrate violators of the High Table’s code.
But most go to the “John Wick” films for the hyperkinetic video game action sequences. With a seamless mix of CGI and stunt work, Stahelski fluidly choreographs ballets of bullets and endless violent encounters across a grim cityscape. In some sequences, the action is clever, stylish and syncopated with the camera in motion. There are sleek showdowns surrounded by reflective glass; inventive weapon selections, when assailants corner Wick in a corridor of antique knives; and chases on horseback under an elevated subway, and by motorcycle in a blur across a bridge. In one moment, a tussle plunges underwater and the action takes on a slow-motion beauty.
There is no doubt that these sequences are quite easily, in form and execution, a cut above what almost every other action film is doing. But “Parabellum” often squanders its finesse by resorting, countless times, to execution-like killings. As the body count swells, the relentless sound of gun blasts and the occasional knife stuck in a skull begins to pulverize. Fans will surely eat it all up, but the “John Wick” films have nothing to say about gun violence despite its absurd abundance. As laudable as the filmmaking is here, it’s an abdication – and one that’s hard to fathom, given the parade of shootings today – that sullies the whole enterprise.
You could say, well, it’s just a movie. That’s true. No one would confuse “the Wickian universe” for our own. But not because of all the gunplay. Because everyone plays by the rules.