Keanu as mustard, but the old boy is looking a wee bit weary
Reeves holds his own against waves of stuntmen half his age in ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’
John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum takes its title from the Latin “para bellum” (“prepare for war”), for which thanks are due to an obscure fourth-century Roman author called Vegetius, notching up probably his first lip service in bone-crunching action cinema.
In contracted form “Parabellum” also denotes a brand of World War 1 machine gun; a Luger pistol; a French punk rock group, a Colombian heavy metal one; and a Russian one that achieved brief fame in 2010’s Eurovision.
Keanu Reeves doesn’t use all of the above to tick off kills in his lavish capper to the Wick trilogy, but he’s rarely short of deafening firearms. Even when he is, there are plenty of alternatives to hand: throwing knives, an axe, two attack dogs, Halle Berry, the back legs of several stallions, and a leather-bound tome in New York’s public library.
It’s with this unsuspecting opus that John Wick fends off his first attacker, minutes before the clock strikes to render him persona non grata – or in the script’s parlance, “excommunicado” – throughout the worldwide assassins’ guild to which every last character in these films belongs.
John broke the rules in Chapter 2, spilling blood on the sacred ground of the Continental Hotel owned by Winston (Ian McShane), and as a result, has no more access to its privileges. And so: it’s open season on his head, with a $14m bounty and nowhere to hide. Old allies such as the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), a pigeon fancier enthroned in rooftop splendour, are powerless to give him help, though he calls in some favours from thus-far-unseen sources – both Berry, as a Morocco-based hit woman called Sofia, and Anjelica Huston, as a queenly ballet impresario simply called The Director, have to gain entry to the franchise somehow.
The Wick saga has ballooned from its modest beginnings – this has about double the budget of the first one. As relentless action sequels go, Parabellum stands comparison with The Raid 2, delivering a meaty set piece every reel or so, and not holding back with the flailing, mechanised slaughter. Knives are punched downwards into skulls, slice eyeballs, or rain into fighters’ backs in a whipcrack fusillade.
Stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski honours the choreography first and foremost – there’s none of the choppy editing that can often cover for this-will-do blockbuster combat, but bravura long takes which push the stuntmen and Reeves (with a lot of digital assistance) to the limits of their presumed endurance.
The first half-hour or so is propulsive and inspired, in part because of the impending deadline of Wick’s exile, and his race to run certain errands before the time runs out. After all, he has a new dog, a charming grey bull terrier, to shepherd to safety: the Continental’s concierge Charon (Lance Reddick) knows the drill. Wick also has to stitch up one of his own flesh wounds, with surgery half-completed at the witching hour.
The rest of the film looms ahead, and the “what next?” of it feels open-ended, expensive, and a bit strained. Morocco is an incense-filled detour, giving Berry a decent showing, with her pair of trusty mutts – gun-holstered, just in case – leaping into the fray to savage prone baddies, usually in the crotch region. Jerome Flynn is a nice surprise, enjoying himself for one sequence as a suspiciously accented grand fromage.
If the film’s loose plotting has an affinity with lesser 007, complete with all these indulgent guest spots, it’s certainly never dull. Asia Kate Dillon (Orange is the New Black) dominates the New York scenes as a new character called The Adjudicator, a brutally polite, glove-wielding emissary telling even underworld kingpins when their goose is cooked.
Despite a role that mainly consists of voguing and saying “gentlemen”, Dillon fares better than Mark Dacascos – Hawaiian kung fu star and regular action maven – who has some cringily goofy moments as Wick’s biggest fan, craving the glory of being the one to take him down. Like most of the film’s stabs at humour, these sit oddly with the straight-faced portentousness, not so much puncturing it with glee as pulling a nervous clown face alongside it.
The film’s shiny finale – inside a dazzling, multi-tiered section of the Continental full of crystal skulls, amusingly barricaded off until now for “special occasions” – is generically entertaining. But there’s something off. The films have expanded around Reeves’s Wick while leaving him essentially in a vacuum, to mop up whatever’s thrown at him without filling out as a character or having much fun. The best hint of his tidy samurai personality comes early – he’s very much the kind of guy to return a library book to the shelf, even after he’s just used it to snap someone’s neck.
Otherwise, the pet punchline of the series is for other characters simply to intone his name – McShane, reliably devilish, keeps giving it a sly spin with “Jonathan” – as if by the repeated incantation of just “John Wick”, or “John fucking Wick”, his iconic status is guaranteed to grow. Has it grown? At 54, Reeves doesn’t have to feign exhaustion in the movie, holding his own against wave after wave of stuntmen half his age – he actually just looks knackered. And while his stamina in the part has totally got us to the finish line, these sequels seem tailored to the audience, not to him.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)