Actions have consequences in the “John Wick” movie universe, so considering all the punches, kicks, bites, knives, bullets, swords and horse boots to the face in “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” … well, those consequences are crazy steep.
And they’re awfully fun to watch in director Chad Stahelski’s solid continuation (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide May 17) of the killer franchise that makes James Bond look about as hardcore as Peppa Pig.
The first “Wick” brought Keanu Reeves’ well-dressed title hero back to his super-assassin life after someone killed his puppy, and the fantastic second chapter revealed a rich mythology and an underworld code of honor. This third movie brings both the operatic action and intriguing exposition, though misses the greatness of “Chapter 2” because of a convoluted last act and underdeveloped supporting characters.
One of the best things you can say about these movies is they waste absolutely no time: “Chapter 3” starts where the last one left off, with John having one hour before being excommunicated from his assassin’s guild and a $14 million bounty put on his head courtesy of the all-powerful High Table. (He killed a guy on the sacred ground of the Continental Hotel, which you just do not do.)
In a downpour, John traverses the dark corners of New York, getting into nasty blade-throwing brawls and even finding equine transportation, seeking sanctuary in a city full of secret killers who want that money – and a shot at taking down the legendary “Baba Yaga” – badly.
The beginning of “Parabellum” is akin to a more civilized “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a propulsive metropolitan chase pitting the main character vs. his entire world. But after a visit with the mysterious director (Anjelica Huston) of a dance company – and a peek into John’s own backstory – our dude takes a flight to Morocco to see Sofia (Halle Berry), a woman from his past who’s moved up in the assassin hierarchy and shares John’s love for pooches. (When Sofia and John tackle an endless legion of bad guys in Casablanca, her two dogs prove as deadly as the humans.)
Neo in “The Matrix” might have been Reeves’ most iconic action role for a while, but John Wick’s the real chosen one – at 54, the actor gives his laconic character the fitting gravitas of a life lived very dangerously, as well as all the necessary head shots, kung fu chops and other kick-butt moves that drive the franchise.
Like other fan-friendly series, though, a growing cast means less time for important players: Berry is great but her screen time is limited, though the coolest new folks here are The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), a stone-cold High Table bureaucrat, and Zero (Mark Dacascos), a sushi chef and Wick fanboy out to kill his idol.
Wick ultimately returns to the Big Apple where a whole subplot unfolds with steely Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) weighing his own allegiance to the High Table. As much as dogs are key to all things “Wick” – John drops off his canine pal with concierge Charon (Lance Reddick) before things get literally dicey – so is the theme of debts. Almost every character owes another, and paying up usually means getting on the bad side of someone else.
It’s almost a karmic answer to everything else in the action-movie genre, where there’s usually a distinct lack of responsibility in the wanton violence: In the “Wick”-verse, a bloody action usually leads to much more trouble later. As long as that’s at the heart of this series, a pretty good “Chapter 3” still equals insanely explosive, two-fisted exhilaration.