Two years ago, John Wick: Chapter 2 was a crazy-big surprise — radical, as its star, Keanu Reeves, would once have put it. Its director, former stuntman Chad Stahelski, transmuted mindless carnage into something abstractly beautiful and horrifying with the formal elegance of Kabuki. Stahelski was justly proud, and bless him for aiming even higher with John Wick: Chapter Three — Parabellum. The movie has more outlandish set pieces, more flashy locales (from Times Square to the Sahara to the groovy, aquarium-like boardroom of the assassins’ Ritz, the Continental Hotel), and a cityscape bejeweled by candy-colored lighting. The cast has been beefed up with likable actors — not just the familiar Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, and Laurence Fishburne but Halle Berry, Angelica Huston, and the charismatic Mark Dacascos as a sushi chef–samurai–John Wick fanboy. The plotting is no longer linear: It’s positively labyrinthine, with a mythical universe of godlike assassins and their minions. The movie should by rights be a “Wow!” But it feels bloated, self-conscious, and pretentious, with long waits between its few dazzling fights. Evidently, it’s hard to build on a premise that’s basically so vacuous and dumb.
Parabellum kicks off where Chapter 2 ended: The famed assassin John Wick and his new pooch hurry from Central Park with an hour’s grace period before the $14 million bounty on his head kicks in. (Every other person he passes seems to know who he is — they’re counting down the seconds before they’re permitted to pull out their weapons.) John has barely enough time to visit his hidden stash of guns and documents and put his dog somewhere out of harm’s way — again with Reddick’s painstakingly deliberate, West Indies–inflected concierge, Charon.
The first two fights are smashingly choreographed and edited: an attack in the main branch of the New York Public Library and the movie’s early high point, in which a slew of Asian assassins face off with Wick in a room of floor-to-ceiling knife cases. Exotic blades are juggled, hard shards of glass rain down, and people somersault over one another, slashing with one hand and flinging an ax with the other. It’s slapstick à la Jackie Chan — and Chan’s principal inspiration, Buster Keaton — juiced up with added (computer-generated) arterial spray. The ensuing motorcycle chase is pretty good, too, and a stable fight would be gangbusters if the kicking horses’ legs didn’t look like CGI. That CGI is an ongoing issue. A dog that scampers up a wall to tear its attacker’s jugular is cartoonish, and the settings have a simulacrum-like fakeness that would make you think of The Matrix even if Parabellum didn’t have the same leading man.
That leading man remains an asset, although wobbly in his big emotional moments. Reeves’s long string of a body — it seems like one unbroken entity, with no separate moving parts — is fun to watch in combat, and his android blankness makes him look wittily streamlined instead of limited. The limits emerge when he tries to emote. Wick pleads for his life to an elder in his international crime conglomerate on the grounds that if he’s still alive, he can remember his beloved dead wife, and so she’ll still exist. Daniel Day-Lewis with dialogue by Jean-Paul Sartre couldn’t have sold that notion, and Reeves has to repeat it when he rejoins McShane’s Winston before the film’s climactic war in the Continental Hotel.
After an excellent scene with Huston — who brings a lifetime of sardonic fatalism to the role of a Russian ballet-cum-assassin trainer (“Art is pain, life is suffering”) — the film turns dullish, especially when John’s Casablanca-based colleague Halle Berry is called on to make like a female Wick. Wick and Sofia are no Rick and Ilsa, I’ll say that. Berry isn’t bad — next to Reeves, she has the histrionic resources of Vanessa Redgrave — but she fights with grit rather than style, and I had a sinking feeling that her character was being set up for her own series. The Sahara excursion is a yawn (the film is too long anyway), and by the time Wick returns to carve up a segment of the Big Apple, the film’s psychology is muddled. There’s a major new character in the Adjudicator, played by the nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon. Their minimalism is amusing (their monotone signals enormous authority), but the rules the character enforces are perplexing and finally silly. (The Adjudicator wants Winston and Fishburne’s Bowery King to step down for providing the most fleeting aid imaginable to Wick, which came not even when Wick was “excommunicado.”)
Parabellum’s finale is intermittently grand, although it opens like a bad edition of Cirque du Soleil, and a protracted barrage of gunfire sounds as threatening as a busy night at the theater’s popcorn stand. It’s just noise. Things pick up later, on an upper floor, when a pair of killers inform John that it’s an honor to fight him and do so with gentlemanliness: To be both lethal and respectful is a feat. Bravo! The much-delayed face-off between Wick and Dacascos’s “Zero” is certainly up to snuff. Their fight in and around the Continental boardroom — with its glass cases, walls, floors, ceilings, and windows that are just begging to be shattered — tops the hall-of-mirrors blowout in John Wick: Chapter 2. It should be the greatest thing ever. But something is missing. By then, John Wick has made so many different pledges to so many different people that he has lost much of his stature. At that point, I’d detached from the film. I didn’t trust it — for good reason, as it turns out. The ending is sour, although I can’t say why. Spoilers and all that.
I can say that the absurdly handsome Dacascos should be a star. Best known for the unhappy American Iron Chef remake and for Wo Fat in the unhappy second incarnation of Hawaii Five-O, he has the looks of a classic Asian action superstar (like Jet Li but elongated) and the timing of a crack American comedian. Alas, he probably won’t be in the next John Wick movie, which is signaled at the end of this one and had better be either less grandiose or earn its grandiosity. Critics and audiences should be the ones who say, “This is a tour de force!” When the filmmakers themselves signal their virtuosity, they remind me of the Boston Globe critic who called Diva a “stylish exercise in style.” True style doesn’t preen like John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.