‘John Wick 3′ Film Review: Keanu Reeves’ Assassin Returns for Mostly Enjoyable Threequel

The strain is starting to show in this franchise, but there’s still a kick to much of its action choreography and body-count brashness

John Wick 3
Niko Tavernise/Lionsgate

“John Wick” movies are shameless yet rules-bound, littered with killings but bejeweled with old-world niceties. Director Chad Stahelski’s third installment in the R-rated franchise of one-man-army vengeance starring Keanu Reeves as the most put-upon, capable assassin in history is called “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.” But it also could have been subtitled “As You Wish,” since it’s as politely accommodating as a sequel can be to what we expect from these movies: slickly gonzo, acrobatic, and close-up violence like the bloodiest of tangos. Just add stabbing implements, kicking horses, motorcycles, shotguns, attack dogs, and more pointy things.

Which is a way of saying we’re a bit of a distance from the original popcorn sleeper of five years ago (“John Wick”) that introduced Reeves’ retired-then-rewired killer as a loner who merely wanted revenge on the guys who stole his car and killed his dog. An adult comic book in every way, it not only boasted dazzlingly choreographed gunplay/combat and a worshipful display of its star’s panther-like physicality, but also, within Derek Kolstad’s scenario, unveiled a ticklishly amusing mythology: a secret, courteous world of international criminals and assassins who set business aside when staying in their swanky private hotel chain called the Continental, but are ruthless everywhere else.

Since then, this world’s scope has expanded, with 2017’s “Chapter 2” increasing the number of antagonists trying to kill Wick to, oh, everyone. “Parabellum” picks up where the last one left off, with our coat-and-tie-wearing anti-hero — declared ex-communicado by the ruling assassin council The High Table — scurrying for cover with a $14 million bounty on his head, the price for dispatching an adversary on Continental grounds.

From here, “Parabellum” segues into its vigorous melees, new locations and guest stars like a musical variety show. Initial sanctuary for Wick comes from Angelica Huston’s Russian queenpin The Director, who operates out of an old theater, and from whom we learn that Wick was a Belarussian orphan whose dark arts were born of ballet and wrestling training. Believe it or not, it’s a background that makes complete sense as presented.

Next up is a trip to Casablanca, where Wick seeks help from an old, embittered colleague named Sophia (Halle Berry), who leads him to an Italian authority (Jerome Flynn, “Game of Thrones”), who in turn points him to the Sahara, where another high-ranking High Table figure (Saïd Taghmaoui, “Wonder Woman”) lays down the terms for Wick’s survival, yadda yadda yadda.

Hey, what matters is that in the middle of this narrative escape route — which took four screenwriters (Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams) — Reeves and an up-to-the-task Berry team up for a classic “Wick” high-body-count shoot-out, thrillingly augmented by perfectly timed Malinois dogs. (Seeing canines pitch in as jujitsu action stars, considering their emotional importance to the franchise’s vengeance origins, feels like inclusive justice.)

Back in New York, meanwhile, a sleek, frosty Adjudicator for the High Table (Asia Kate Dillon, working their calculating mien from “Billions”) puts the screws to both the Continental’s imperious manager Winston (Ian McShane, as enjoyable as ever) and underworld leader the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) for aiding and abetting Wick’s defiance. The Adjudicator’s weapon of choice: expert assassin Zero (Mark Dacascos, “Iron Chef”), who may be a John Wick fanboy but is more than ready to deliver the man’s death sentence when he returns from his travels.

And how are the action sequences? They’re fun until they feel familiar, and even then they’re still a trip because the long takes demand admiration for the sheer brute exertion at work. There’s an all-timer early on in a weapons museum, with a close-quarters scrap in a corridor of knife display cases that’ll curl your hair, and a weaponizing of horse hind-kicks in a stables scene that’s explosively funny.

A later motorcycle chase that incorporates sword fighting feels a little too digitized to be truly breathtaking, but a climactic hand-to-gun-to-sword-to-hand fight in a shimmering glass maze between Wick and two of Zero’s men (Indonesian martial artists from “The Raid”) is a true bruiser, equal parts vicious, eccentric, and crazy. Reeves, as always, injects his own peculiar mix of star power and wordless characterization into these showdowns — they’re when we know Wick best, as a kind of weary middle-aged warrior who commands a scary respect.

On the technical front, “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” is a suitably colorful affair, with cinematographer Dan Laustsen (“The Shape of Water”) and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh (“Sicario: Day of the Soldado”) burnishing their franchise credentials by keeping up the series’ blend of high-gloss visuals and heightened locations, particularly when it comes to The Continental. No matter what far-flung locations we’re taken to, when the action returns to The Continental, it’s like coming home, as if “John Wick” had its own Hogwarts: a setting pleasantly familiar, splendid to look at, and teeming with treachery.

That “John Wick: Chapter 3” ends in this tower of the sumptuous and sinister feels right, but the set-up for a “Chapter 4” is a sign that the creators have an extended stay on their minds, even though they might want to check out while this uniquely enjoyable violent fantasy still feels like an action holiday.