John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum (United States, 2019)

May 16, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum Poster

The John Wick series, now on cruise control for its third installment, has fallen into a trap. The filmmakers have become so intent on delivering “more of the same” that they have lost all sense of proportion. While hyper-violent, quasi-comedic action sequences have their place in films (and in this franchise in particular), there comes a point when repetition dilutes the experience. As strange as it may sound with everyone clearly invested in the project, there are times when John Wick 3 feels like it’s going through the motions. Many of the fight scenes (especially the climactic one, which substitutes glass for the mirrors of #2) feel like reworked copies of earlier battles. There’s a point at which the “more of the same” mantra changes to “been there, done that.”

Director Chad Stahelski (who has helmed all three John Wick movies, although he had an uncredited assist from David Leitch on the first one) and screenwriter Derek Kolstad (joined this time around by Shay Hatten and Chris Collins & Marc Abrams) return us to the world of the first two films: a stylized neon nightscape full of seedy backstreets and upscale hotels. This interpretation of nighttime New York is just the playground for a series of high-octane, no-holds-barred chase and action scenes in which people bring knives to gun fights, guns to knife fights, and shatter more glass than a world class soprano hitting a high note. The movie delivers pretty much the same thing that John Wick and John Wick Chapter 2 did. So what’s the problem? The third time isn’t necessarily a charm and the movie achieves its franchise-longest 130-minute running length by padding the middle section with an elongated, unnecessary side-trip to Casablanca that offers unfulfilled potential and ultimately proves to be pointless.

John Wick 3 gets off to a rousing start, picking up exactly where its predecessor left off. Tick-tock, John Wick (Keanu Reeves), your hour is almost up – that’s how much time his friend and associate Winston (Ian McShane) gave him in Chapter 2 before his status as Excommunicado becomes official and a $14M bounty goes into effect. For about 30 minutes, the movie is flying high. John shows how books can be used for more than reading and gets involved in one of those bloody, comedic fights whose meticulous choreography reminds us that Stahelski made his name as a stunt coordinator. Eventually, the movie slows down for some exposition. The problem is, it never recovers from the downtime. There are more fight scenes to come, including a long one featuring Halle Berry as Sophia, a former client whose help John solicits in the aforementioned North African city, but something is missing. Maybe it’s the humor or maybe it’s just that there’s a point at which fight scenes, no matter how kick-ass, start to lose their spark. Objectively, the finale represents the most intricate instance of one-on-one one-upmanship but, by then, the testosterone-and-adrenaline mix has started to go flat.

In past years, director Stahelski and star Reeves have referred to John Wick as a trilogy. I was happy they got to make Chapter 3 because I wanted to see how it all ended. Going into this movie, the sense was that it might follow the Payback template with John going up the chain of command and killing everyone necessary to get the Excommunicado lifted (this isn’t really what happens but it’s not entirely off-base, either). Somewhere along the way, however, the filmmakers and actors were persuaded that John Wick didn’t need to end with Chapter 3. As a result, there is no resolution. We’re provided with a cliffhanger than dares Lionsgate not to fund Chapter 4. It feels a little like a bait-and-switch and isn’t entirely satisfying.

Reeves’ John Wick looks and acts much the same as in the previous two films. His suit is black and white and red all over. His implacable expression never wavers. He’s often ready with a one-liner. But he’s more of an automaton here. Maybe it’s because he has sent his dog away for safekeeping but there doesn’t seem to be much humanity left in John Wick. Returning actors Ian McShane, Lance Reddick (as Winston’s second-in-command), and Laurence Fishburne (as the Bowery King) are all in fine form. Newcomers Asia Kate Dillon (as The Adjudicator) and Mark Dacascos (as Zero, Parabellum’s chief bad guy) deepen the series’ mythology. Halle Berry, although heavily featured in the film’s advertising, has a relatively small role focused on one sprawling fight scene. Presumably, she’s being kept on the shelf for future use. 

I’d love to say that fans of the first two movies will love this one, but I fall into that group and I was a little disappointed by this outing. When it works, John Wick 3 is on par with its predecessors for bloody fun and gory good times. Unfortunately, the movie’s ability to engage for a majority of its running time has slipped and it’s hard to put #3 on the same level as #2 or #1. What concerns me the most, however, is that this is an irreversible trend and, if there is a John Wick 4, it will continue the slide. “More of the same” isn’t necessary bad but it’s tough to put a good spin on “Been there, done that.”

John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum (United States, 2019)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2019-05-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Action/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1