“Do what you do best, John.”
That tidbit of wisdom – delivered late in the film “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” to the title character – is good advice for anyone, really, if also not terribly deep. But then again, neither is the film.
This third installment in the popular, and ridiculously pleasurable, franchise about a professional assassin (Keanu Reeves) who does little besides kill and try not to be killed, elevates violent action to an art form. There is so much of it, and it is so decisive, constant and committed that it almost becomes a form of abstract movement, like ballet.
The filmmaker Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman and stunt coordinator who has overseen all three John Wick films, surely knows this. There are scenes in the new film that take our hero back to the dance academy/martial arts school where he once trained. There he meets a mysterious Russian woman (Anjelica Huston), who calls him “Jardani,” and they speak of a “ticket,” in the form of a crucifix attached to a rosary-like string of beads. (If this is an origin story, it raises far more questions than it answers.) As young ballerinas rehearse onstage, we watch male combatants engage in hand-to-hand combat in backstage gymnasiums.
The Wick films are best appreciated not so much as story but as pure choreography, albeit one in which the dancers are stabbed in the eye socket, kicked in the head by horses, bitten in the crotch by German shepherds or shot with a high-powered weapon, leaving a sudden plume of blood and brain matter on the screen before John moves on to the next pas de deux. This is what Mr. Wick – as he is most often addressed, along with, once or twice, Baba Yaga (loosely, boogeyman) – does best.
It’s shocking, yes, but the shock wears off as the mayhem reaches the level of Sichuan cooking: numbing yet spicy.
There is just enough story here to give the brutality shape and purpose, and to keep that numbness from turning to boredom. “Parabellum” – the name comes from a Latin phrase meaning “If you want peace, prepare for war” – picks up precisely where “John Wick: Chapter 2” left off: with John on the run. After the assassin’s organization to which he belongs has declared him “excommunicado” – banned for killing a man on the grounds of an off-limits hotel that caters exclusively to a clientele of killers – he must flee from a host of hit men who want a piece of the $14 million bounty that has been placed on his head.
This flight takes him to the aforementioned Russian, then Casablanca, where he meets a resentful ex-partner (Halle Berry) and her boss (Jerome Flynn), and finally to someone in the middle of the desert known as the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui).
Did I say finally? Despite the high body count left in John’s wake – and injuries to him that would kill an ordinary man many times over – nothing is ever final in this franchise, which ends with the promise of a fourth film that may or may not unravel some of the mysteries hinted at here.
The Elder sends John back to the scene of his crime for more of the same. It’s deliciously watchable, if you can circumvent your frontal lobe for your lizard brain.
Helping all the savagery go down a little more easily is the film’s clever world-building, which constructs a retro, noirish universe in which business-suited murderers live and work side-by-side with normal people under a separate social contract that involves blood oaths and, most importantly, draconian punishment for violating the former.
An enforcer from this universe, know as the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), moves through the narrative like a ghost, meting out penalties that make the word medieval inadequate.
“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” is neither subtle nor thoughtful. It is, arguably, a nasty piece of work. But, like its hero, it knows what it does best, and it does it – however paradoxical this may sound – beautifully.