That weapon of gestural clarity John Wick is run ragged, and Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” runs the viewer ragged, too. The explosive potential for dynamic physical conflict among human forms is visited not just upon the polite but righteous John Wick: his ranks of adversaries are tossed, torn, noosed, dragged, stabbed, shot, shot, crotch-bit, machine-gunned, hand-axed, saber-sliced, face-crushed, shot, burnt, bullied, horse-kicked, catapulted, subjected to sustained antique-knife fracas and shot. “In this film, you’ll see much more of this mythological, hyper-real world full of secret hotels, hidden underworlds and men and women possessed of crazy skills,” is stuntman-turned-action formalist Stahelski’s humble-brag of his work.
The canvas, augmented by a crew of vivid, active imagination, is a succession of super-violent revenge thriller setpieces, a generous hallucination of gravity and its gifts and the precision of fine weaponry. It’s hypnotic yet wearying: even the fighters who are proud to face the John Wick until the death don’t fall or fall again or die before having the sweat wrung from them and the blood spilled and pooled.
Explicit headshots rule the count: digital painting of expressionistic violence for the large screen has escalated from the stylized spray of Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi” (2003) and the drab puddling of David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007). At a particular threshold, what does the dispatch of these faceless minions in puffs of pink and crimson count toward? The numberless, nameless slaughter of ranks of soldiers sent to die against superior forces? As Laurence Fishburne’s King of the Bowery says, raising his voice to the Lower East heavens, “Well, sometimes… you gotta cut a motherfucker!”
Bodies are left where they fall. Then Stahelski takes a breath and returns to the sweet, gaudy fantasy world, to the “Matrix”-like, “Brazil”-reminiscent world-build, and flips the switch in the brain where “Blade Runner”’s images are stored. (I think he and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh and cinematographer Dan Laustsen may also, properly, be fond of “Speed Racer.”) John Boorman’s op-pop 1967 vengeance volley “Point Blank” is woven in, too, and there are sleek implications of Fritz Lang’s world of paranoia, from secret societies below and above ground, and interior battlefields with transparent glass ceiling-floors that reveal adversaries and also tempt smashing. The film has space in its Times Square-in-rain opening for a gorgeous projected instant of John Wick’s patron saint Buster Keaton amid bristling stories-high advertising screens, and even finds room for a blunt invocation of Andrei Tarkovsky.
Narrative propulsion is in elemental strokes: the story is a succession of settings, of houses of the mind, that Wick must break through to achieve the single goal to which he holds fast: to live to remember those who loved him who have died. The fifty-four-year-old Reeves plays bone-weary inside a severe shantung suit with sylvan selvage, tie tied always, his hair dark-dank and wet-lank in any setting. Reeves is an active participant in the making of his latter-day movies, lending his “DNA” to every aspect, as all “John Wick” players volunteer. (There’s room for lots and lots of devilish detail, including a rear-projected Hokusai made of magma, blowfish omakase and an ammo sommelier.)
The JOHN WICK series has become like its own heavily-featured Continental. It’s a place for action connoisseurs to check in, safe in the knowledge that they will receive special treatment.
JOHN WICK 3 sees the establishment outdoing themselves for your pleasure.
— Abe “Bastard Keith” Goldfarb (@AbeGoldfarb) May 17, 2019
Stahelski choreographs the protracted impossibilities of hand-to-hand combat from “The Raid” and “The Raid 2” with Mark Dacascos and the action performers from those movies, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman. Yet they are but three of dozens of players who leave deep, indelible marks. Each fighter, each actor, especially Halle Berry in a Moroccan fight scene, is given room to bloom.
Keanu Reeves gives the right answer to an impossible question. pic.twitter.com/hQAgaaGSEY
— laney (@misslaneym) May 11, 2019
From the start, Reeves has been uncommonly aware of his capabilities, and the hard-wired, propulsive, middle-aged John Wick captures most poses he can strike with authority. His performance gifts escape some (re)viewers, which reminded me of a story about his Canadian “Hamlet,” back in the late twentieth century. I did not see this performance, but heard about it, related as if at a séance. On this night within a gentle Santa Ana, the zoo bus of journalists traveled remorseless circles along back roads toward Culver City for an early screening of a movie with Keanu Reeves. Los Angeles was dark and the bus was dim. The hacks were in jolly form, trashing recent movies, making mock of actors or celebrities they had encountered in recent weeks. The journalist at the window seat called up one of their treasured stage memories. They had seen decades of Hamlets, in the West End, on Broadway, at the Stratford Festival, and they had simple-sum descriptions of major performances that were never committed to another medium. Yet, they said, there was the stellar performance, in at least one attribute: Keanu Reeves’ 1995 “Hamlet,” in Winnipeg at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. Audiences were ecstatic, reviewers rapt. They reassured me that except for the now-familiar flat affect of Reeves’ voice—this was just past “Speed”— no other Hamlet came close to the physical needs of the play in the Northern Hemisphere for fathoms and fathoms of the mid-to-late twentieth century. “Lanky and feline. Confounded youth. He was beautiful and present.” Same as it ever was. With Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Ian McShane, Saïd Taghmaoui, Jason Mantzoukas, Robin Lord Taylor, Boban Marjanovic. 131m. Widescreen. (Ray Pride)
“John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” opens Thursday, May 16 in IMAX and other formats.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.