There are essentially two types of scenes in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum: fight sequences and really tense meetings about rules and regulations.
That may sound like this is a streamlined endeavor, but in reality Parabellum (as is often the case with third installments in franchises) is a whole lot more: more talk about the bylaws that govern the assassin society of which John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is, at this point, a hunted member; more characters, including an adversary (Mark Dacascos) who is part ninja and part Wick fanboy; and, most dispiritingly, more firepower. Some 20 years after Reeves asked for “guns, lots of guns” in The Matrix—and at a time when school shootings in the United States have become routine—here he is in Parabellum’s deadening finale eschewing the hand-to-hand virtuosity of the first film in favor of bigger, badder shotguns that will explode even the most well-helmeted noggin.
Why is this both a political and aesthetic problem? It’s not that these films have previously avoided gunplay, after all. Yet in the original John Wick in particular, it was more of the “gun fu” variety, in which the lethal thud of each bullet was literally felt by the audience, thanks to a combination of Reeves’ intimate performance style, the expert stunt choreography, and the careful attention to sound design. In Parabellum, the shootouts—and there are two disastrous ones, that finale and a mid-film sequence featuring new costar Halle Berry—are less about Wick (his motivations, his anger, his technique) and more about the grandiosity of the violence.
The same is true of what I’ll call kill gags—Parabellum’s variation on the kill shot. The first kill gag comes as an exclamation point to what is probably the film’s best scene: an early throwdown in an antique weapons shop. The scene proceeds as the best Wick set pieces do—with director Chad Stahelski giving the bone-crushing stunt work the time and space it needs to make us fully appreciation the combination of dexterity and brutality—and then concludes with Wick whipping a hatchet across the room, where it lands with a thwack in the top of the last remaining adversary’s skull. That move is in keeping with Wick’s instinctive efficiency, but I don’t know if I can say the same of a later kill gag, where he repeatedly smacks a horse on the rear so it will kick its legs and crush an assassin’s head. By the time Wick mounts the horse and uses a rope to drag another killer out onto New York City’s streets, I began to wonder if this was the near-literal moment where the series had jumped the shark.
What’s to admire? Another earlier, more intimate hand-to-hand altercation with a hitman played by NBA giant Boban Marjanovic (Stahelski gets creative with low and high camera angles there). And cinematographer Dan Laustsen delivers the usual neon fever dream, as well as a few clever diversions (there’s a great moment during an early chase sequence in which Wick ducks into a chandelier shop and suddenly the grimy fluorescence of the streets gives way to an ironically warm elegance). Asia Kate Dillon is also fun as The Adjudicator, the slight, persnickety representative of the High Table (this world’s governing body), who confidently walks among these hulking, violent men like a tattletale kindergartner. The best thing about her? I don’t think she ever wields a gun.