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This Wick Lights Some Fireworks

Keanu Reeves
Keanu Reeves
 131 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByChad Stahelski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry    
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

One of the best lines ever uttered by Harry Callahan, Clint Eastwood’s iconic detective, came in the second film in the Dirty Harry franchise, Magnum Force, when Callahan tells his superior, “A good man always knows his limitations.” Since then, few actors have recognized and played to their limitations as well as Keanu Reeves has. During a career that has stretched over three decades, he is best known for three signature roles. First, he was the stoned antihero Ted of Bill & Ted fame. Then, when he aged out of that role (although he now seems to have aged back into it in an upcoming sequel), he became somewhat of an action star, culminating in the role of martial arts expert Neo in the Matrix. After the last of the Matrix films, Reeves was largely MIA for a decade of occasional less than memorable roles in equally less than memorable films. Now, however, he’s hotter than ever in a part that’s perfectly tailored to his rather specific set of acting skills, that of master hit man John Wick, whose third adventure, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum features some of his best “acting.”


In the traditional sense, of course, Reeves’s range as an actor doesn’t extend much farther than the befuddled “whoas” he uttered as Ted. For that reason, he often flounders in roles involving substantial dialogue or varying emotional displays. But he is also a talented martial artist and in excellent physical shape, which makes him perfect for the part of John Wick. He also has the ideal director in Chad Stahelski to fashion scenes that showcase his abilities.


The John Wick movies have something else in common with Reeves’s Matrix films besides his presence. Both franchises feature an elaborate backstory that is initially compelling but becomes more convoluted and unwieldy as the series progresses. The John Wick movies are set in a world in which he and the world’s other top paid assassins are part of an international consortium ruled with an iron hand by a shadowy group known as the High Table. Among the consortium’s rules is an advanced concept of sanctuary, locations that include the Continental Hotel in New York City where anyone can stay without fear of becoming a victim. That is, until Wick breaks the rule at the end of the previous movie in the franchise, John Wick: Chapter 2 when he kills that film’s lead villain, who had taken up residence in The Continental.


As John Wick: Chapter 3 begins, Wick has been declared ex-communicado, which essentially means that there is an open contract on his head for $14 million, a figure that rises as the film goes on, and that no one can help him in any way. As Wick dodges and kills a host of would-be assassins in the movie’s first half hour, he seeks help from his few remaining friends (or those who still owe him favors and are willing to defy the edict). These include his former mentor, The Director (Anjelica Huston), head of a Russian crime family, and his former partner of sorts Sofia (Halle Berry), who now runs the Casablanca branch of The Continental. With Sofia’s help, John learns how he can meet with the High Table directly, a trek that involves a long hike through the Sahara Desert.


Wick eventually collapses in the desert and is taken in by The Elder (Said Taghmaoui), one of the members. The Elder offers Wick a chance to be readmitted into the good graces of the High Table if he kills Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the New York Continental and the man who gave Wick enough of a head start to allow the assassin to escape from New York initially. Wick accepts the offer but then teams up with Winston to make a last stand inside the Continental against some of the High Table’s top assassins, including Zero (Mark Dacascos), a fan of Wick’s who is eager to match his talents against those of his former role model.


The John Wick movies walk a fine line between taking its backstory seriously and treating it as the utter nonsense that it is. After all, we are talking about a secret society that operates old fashioned hand ledger books out of some central bank, has its own gold coin currency, a set of luxury hotels unknown to the outside world, and includes characters called The Director, The Elder, and The Adjudicator. The first John Wick movie had at least one foot in reality, with Wick’s motivation an understandable desire for revenge against the mob-protected punks that killed his dog. But these last two films have gotten increasingly far-fetched, and in those too lengthy expository stretches in the movie, the strain of maintaining the pretense of the backstory shows. Fortunately, the filmmakers recognized the need to avoid a descent into utter silliness, and they cast charismatic character actors like McShane, Huston, Laurence Fishburne, and Lance Reddick in key supporting roles. These actors know just how to play their parts, by somewhat winking at the audience to assure viewers that the filmmakers know their story is silly but asking the audience to go along with it nonetheless.


When the audience does play along, the action scenes in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum are well worth their trust. Many films pride themselves on a single great set piece; John Wick: Chapter 3 has over a half dozen. Director Chad Stahelski films these scenes the same way Fred Astaire’s directors did, full length with minimal editing. In that way, audiences realize that the actors like Reeves and Mark Dacascos (another talented martial artist) are doing their own stunt work and appreciate the intricate skills on display. Stahelski pays equal attention to the setting and staging of each set piece. The film’s first fight takes place in the New York City Public Library, where Wick kills an oversized hit man (NBA center Boban Marjanovic) with a library book. Later, another fight spills over into an antique weapons museum where Wick and his adversaries have a cornucopia of knives and other spiked weapons at their disposal. Even man’s best friends come along for the fight, as a couple of highly trained German Shepherds put on a show of canine acrobatics as they help Wick and Sofia battle a group of Moroccan opponents.


Not surprisingly, Stahelski saves the best for last, when the High Table’s forces descend on The Continental en masse for the final showdown. Fortunately, Winston has prepared for the occasion by stocking up some heavy artillery that gives Wick enough firepower to blast his way through a couple of dozen storm troopers wearing heavy body armor (which often require several shots to penetrate). Finally, the big showdown involving Zero and a couple of his top henchmen takes place in a multi-story penthouse office suite made entirely of glass.


For fans of action movies, the set pieces in John Wick: Chapter 3 are as good as it gets. Stahelski combines flair, style, and martial art brilliance again and again, and Keanu Reeves manages to suffer almost as much punishment as he dishes out in these grueling sequences (he and Tom Cruise continue to defy Father Time by performing their own highly risky stunts). The same can’t be said, however, for the expository scenes, which cross over the line once or twice into silliness and have the perhaps unavoidable effect of breaking the rhythm and mood of the set pieces. What this movie does best, and should do more of, is to let Stahelski and Reeves be themselves and give the supporting co-stars just a few choice moments in-between the many action scenes. It’s not yet the beginning of summer, but I feel that I can confidently predict that I won’t see better fight sequences all year than what was on display in John Wick: Chapter 3. For that reason alone, this is one heck of an entertaining action movie. 

In this clip, Keanu Reeves leaves his dog behind for safe keeping before going on the run again.

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John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019) on IMDb