John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 2/19/17
Director: Chad Stahelski
Music: Tyler Bates
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick, Mark Dacascos, Angelica Huston, Asia Kate Dillon, Cecep Arif Rahman, Yayan Ruhian

"Art is pain. Life is suffering."

Coming up with a sequel to "John Wick 2" (2017) is no small feat. That film ended with John (Keanu Reeves) being excommunicated from the assassinati (not my word, but I like it) and given an hour of immunity before every assassin in the world comes after him for a huge bounty. As Winston (Ian McShane) puts it, "the odds are about even." The film makes good on that premise, and opens with John on the run in New York City, cutting down anyone who gets in his way. He always seems to have an ace up his sleeve and manages to convince an old family acquaintance to arrange safe passage to Casablanca. There, he meets up with another old acquaintance named Sofia (Halle Berry), and presses her into service with a previous blood debt. John wants an audience with the leader of the High Table in order to make amends for his actions, but the price may cost him his soul. Meanwhile, an adjudicator for the High Table (Asia Kate Dillon) is following up on the Wick case by investigating and punishing anyone who bent the rules to help John, including Winston and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). This makes it convenient for John to return to New York and make a stand against the High Table, which results in a dizzying battle for the fate of The Continental. While there's a definite note of finality, the film cops out by leaving room for yet another sequel.

It's a gorgeous and exquisitely crafted film, and the art direction and cinematography are superb. It somehow manages to push the envelope even further in the action department and features some truly astonishing fight scenes. Keanu Reeves delivers an amazing performance and suffers an incredible amount of physical abuse. Much to my delight, the film moves away from the MMA styled grappling of the previous films in favor of flashier looking Asian styles. Keanu always looked stiff and wooden in his previous films, but here he's incredibly fast, fluid, and graceful. One highlight out of many is a fight involving silat masters Yayan Ruhian from "The Raid" (2011) and Cecep Arif Rahman from "The Raid 2" (2013), which is absolutely marvelous. Mark Dacascos shows up as a major antagonist and has a wonderful fight towards the end, but sadly his character is played for laughs, which spoils the tone and makes it difficult to take him seriously. But it's nice to see that he still has the moves.

Much like the other films in the series, this one looks fabulous and excels at depicting the opulent and seductive neon-noir appeal of the criminal underworld, while continuing to struggle in the storytelling department. The story beats feel forced and awkward, and merely exist to set up the next fantastic fight scene. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it strains the film's credibility. Similarly, the failed attempts at humor don't do the film any favors. Halle Berry gives an excellent performance and has some incredible action scenes, but her character isn't very likable or well-developed, and her facial tattoos are a constant distraction. Just as we're beginning to get to know her, she disappears for the rest of the film. Similarly, Asia Kate Dillon cuts an impressive figure as the adjudicator, but her character is rather two-dimensional and her glaring neck tattoo contradicts and cheapens her role. Lance Reddick once again plays the distinguished concierge of The Continental, and it's nice to see him get in on the action this time.

This is an exciting time for action cinema, as more stunt performers are becoming filmmakers and studios are becoming more open to that fact. Chad Stahelski has proven himself to be a remarkable director, and he knows exactly what the audience wants to see and how to achieve it. It's also important to note that his editing enhances the action rather than ruining it, which is a area where most Hollywood films fail miserably. While the visual effects are quite good, the digital knife effects are disappointing and not totally convincing. However, that's only a minor criticism in an otherwise highly polished production. It will be interesting to see if the series continues and what direction it will take. Given its strong box office performance, I'm sure Lionsgate will want to wring as much as it can out of the franchise.