“Si vis pacem, para bellum.”
Within the first half hour of the third installment in the John Wick franchise, Keanu Reeves’ titular character kills a man by snapping his neck with a book, engages in a brutal knife fight with three assassins–ending it with a fluid axe toss to the head, slaps a horse’s ass so hard that it kicks a guy into a wall, and engages in a chase throughout New York on horseback while shooting people on motorcycles as they crash into the cars lined on the road.
Subtitled Parabellum for the above Latin phrase, translating to “If you want peace, prepare for war.”, John Wick: Chapter 3 manages to beat all odds. It’s rare that an original work of film manages to single-handedly spin its craft into a sequel, and much rarer–a threequel. But that’s exactly what happened with the Keanu Reeves-led 2014 action flick John Wick, a simple tale of a man and his dog that explodes into a violent spectacle when the latter is killed as a result of some vicious thugs, and its owner–an ex-contract killer–decides to exact his revenge in the only way that’s ever worked for him: killing literally everyone in sight. Two movies later, John Wick (Reeves) is still doing that, just for more complicated reasons. With a $14 million bounty on his head after murdering an annoyance on sacred grounds, Wick ended the second film and begins the third by running for his life as everyone around him prepares for war.
In a franchise that seems to have nowhere to go but up, it’s oddly still a bit perplexing to see just how phenomenal it all plays out over the course of John’s journey across the world that brings him into the path of familiar faces he hadn’t seen since he left the game to be with his wife years before. Something that these films seem to embrace is the duality of their lead, slowly conveying right from the start how John’s exit from the quiet facade of his home life was never going to be a quick in-and-out revenge execution. There were always going to be repercussions, and it’s safe to say that John probably knows that by now. But there’s a sense that he still doesn’t mind the madness, and that he’d do it all over again even if it meant that thousands of underworld assassins would come a-hunting. Because someone killed his dog. And there’s nothing that can justify that.
Compared to the two previous installments, the first half hour of this film feels like a complete adrenaline rush. It’s hard to recall any action film from the past decade that has an opening this riveting and this intense. Chad Stahelski’s stellar direction and Dan Laustsen’s neon-layered cinematography are a combination action films wish they had the ability to utilize just as effectively as this one does. But what truly makes these movies is Reeves himself, giving what may very well be the best performance he’s ever given.
What makes his character so grounded and able to care for on the audience’s part is how Reeves embodies everything about Wick. Usually, dual performances are accredited to an actor who plays two separate characters in the same movie (Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy, Lupita Nyong’o in Us), but with this franchise, even though Reeves is technically playing one character, his mannerisms are identifiable as two different roles. The first is, of course, the more emotional and dialogue-driven Wick, one who has a dark past that gives layers upon layers of development. The second is a completely physical portrayal, an embodiment of the moniker his enemies use to refer to him (Baba Yaga, the Boogeyman) and a slicing, shooting, and stabbing feeling of awesomeness.
The film features both new and returning characters, all of them mostly interesting and well-cooked from both a developmental and a logical standpoint. The easy standout is Halle Berry’s Sofia, a Casablanca-residing assassin who aids Wick in his quest for sanctuary as the global hunt for his life rages on. Berry hasn’t had many chances to shine in action movies but seeing her kick all sorts of ass here is amazing. In addition, she has two brutal German Shepherds that, despite their bloodlust at her command, are very good boys indeed. Lance Reddick’s hotel concierge Charon also gets much more to do this time around, being regressed to the sidelines in previous installments but finally allowing audiences to see his wild side in a climactic shootout near the end.
Stunt choreography and execution is on-point here; as mentioned earlier, Reeves’ physical acting paves way for a whole new generation of actors doing their own stunts. In a sense, it almost feels more close-quartered and tense when one knows that the lead actor isn’t having someone else do the hard work for them. Riding on a horse through the city streets? Check. Engaging in a 3-v-1 knife fight within the confines of a tight-knit weapons warehouse? Got that. While franchises like Mission: Impossible work best when faced with a grandiose scope of stuntwork, the John Wick series hits its stride when it gets so claustrophobically up-close in the audience’s face. To nobody’s surprise, it works like a charm here.
Mark Dacascos plays the film’s villain, Zero, who’s inarguably the weakest main antagonist in the series but still manages to be quite a formidable foe for John and even feels more fleshed-out than he initially seems. There’s a scene where Zero explains how he admires John and says they’re the same, both “masters of death”. And then near the end, John spares two of Zero’s henchmen as the latter looks on. There’s almost a sense of the blurred line between approval and disapproval that Zero sees of John in this scene, an admiration of the themes of mortality and questions dredged up about “retirement” of our pasts: if we’re always the same people we once were, and what that means in many different ways…for us and others.
Overall, John Wick: Chapter 3 does more than transcend expectations: it beats them to a bloody pulp before running them over with a ’69 Mustang and shooting them awake. Even with the pain, their attention still wouldn’t falter as a result of the exhilarating mindf*ck that Stahelski and co. deliver upon the cinema world. This is more than just one of the best action films of the past decade…this is one of the greatest of all time. It’s a complete mind-blowing (literally) extravaganza from start to finish and works as both a perfect standalone escapade and a phenomenal setup for Chapter 4.