Review: 'John Wick: Chapter 3' makes schlocky shoot-’em-ups fun again

"John Wick: Chapter 3" [Photo: Niko Tavernise]

"John Wick: Chapter 3" [Photo: Niko Tavernise]

If you’re jonesing for a bit of the old ultraviolence this week, you won’t do much better than John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum. Three movies into this balls-to-the-wall assassin saga, the action is bigger and more brutal than ever.

Parabellum picks up where John Wick: Chapter 2 left off, meaning the whole story thus far has taken place over the course of a few weeks. Apex predator Wick (Keanu Reeves) runs through the streets of Manhattan in search of safety, with a $14 million bounty on his head only minutes from going into effect. Ya see, John made the mistake of killing a big-time crime boss at a hotel called the Continental, hallowed ground for hitmen. Now he’s fighting for his life, with every badass from here to Casablanca out to get him.

Over the next two beautifully absurd hours, Parabellum expands on the criminal underworld at the center of this universe—but plot is a stopgap in the John Wick franchise. See-it-to-believe-it feats are why you buy the ticket, and the bonkers action here is well worth the price of admission.

What’s fascinating is that, on paper, these movies shouldn’t work. Like its predecessors, Parabellum trades in a kind of over-the-top schlock that sinks most shoot-’em-ups. But Keanu and director Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman, consistently elevate these pictures to standouts in the action genre. The maximal approach to fight choreography makes it hard to look away—whether it’s a hundred knives getting thrown, magazines being emptied for the hell of it, or Wick going through a dozen panes of glass—a bloody bonanza with finesse more akin to ballet than anything (whichParabellum nods at). It’s Gene Kelly meets Jackie Chan, Swan Lake performed in a pro wrestling ring. The combo makes for an immersive theatergoing experience. You can’t help but wonder, jaw on the floor: “How in the hell did they pull that off?”

John Wick ’s success boils down to its authenticity and no small amount of bravado. There’s some CGI here, but more often than not, these films lean into good old-fashioned stunt work for an effect that’s impossible to discount. Sure, there’s some movie magic and safety precautions, but whether it’s Reeves himself or a poor, poor stuntman, you know somebody is actually being thrown to the ground, actually getting bitten by a dog, actually being hit by a car. In an age of overwrought digital effects, that realism lends some serious weight.

Stahelski and company’s willingness to up the ante time and time again keeps this rollercoaster rattling ever upward. We don’t get bored, because higher stakes are matched masterfully by wilder stunts.

Days after Parabellum’s release,Lionsgate announced that a fourth installment will hit screens in 2021, so the question at some point becomes, how long can they sustain this? In the meantime, let’s appreciate John Wick: Chapter 3 for what it is: one of the funnest, dumbest, most impressive action flicks around.

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Director: Chad Stahelski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane
Rated: R
Theater: Area theaters, now showing