Even the most dedicated action junkie might find himself exhausted by “John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum,” Chad Stahelski’s latest installment of the saga about a legendary hit-man brought out of retirement to take vengeance on those who messed with his dog and his car. The movie strings together a chain of flashy martial arts fisticuffs, explosively stylish swordfights and garish gun battles, some with animal partners, but by the end the excitement they’re intended to generate has mutated into something very close to tedium. One can get too much even of a good thing.
The movie begins where the last one ended—with Wick (Keanu Reeves) running through the rain-soaked streets of New York, a hunted man after he has desecrated the Continental Hotel, the “safe zone” for assassins in the city, by killing a rival there. The High Table, which runs the “union” of professional murderers and apply the rules they all must follow, is about to declare open season on Wick by excommunicating him and posting a $14 million bounty for his death. Every assassin in the city, and the world (and there seems to be a bunch of them on every block—apparently it’s one calling that never has a shortage of applicants) will be out to collect.
So after depositing his beloved canine with his old friend Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the Continental, and Charon (Lance Reddick), the place’s unflappable concierge, Wick is off to try to save himself. After dealing with an introductory bevy of assailants—a giant in the NYC library, where he stops to collect some important belongings, a bunch of nasties in a knife-and-hatchet shop, another gang that chases him into a stable for carriage horses—and having his wounds tended to by an underground doctor just as the excommunication deadline strikes, he’s off to visit his old mentor the Director (Anjelica Huston), a menacing Russian ballet master who grudgingly books him passage to Casablanca, where he plans to meet the head of the High Table and negotiate his reinstatement.
There Wick asks for help from another old acquaintance, Sophia (Halle Berry), who holds a grudge against himself despite the fact that he once saved her daughter. Use of another of his old markers, or I.O.U.s, leads her and her capable dogs to join him in visiting Berrada (Jerome Flynn), a Table power player who can direct him to the group’s reclusive leader (Saïd Taghmaoui). That encounter results in another bloodbath, in which Sophia and her dogs play a major role, but it finally leads to Wick’s face-to-face with the leader, who offers him reinstatement if he returns to New York and kills Winston.
Winston is already being threatened for having helped Wick by the Table’s malevolent Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who has also her sights set on the Director and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), another old Wick ally. She has also hired Zero (Mark Dacascos), a sushi chef with special expertise in knives, to deal with all the Table’s enemies when Wick returns to the city. Will Wick side with Winston or kill him?
The upshot is a final battle at the Continental that involves scads of the Table’s armored soldiers, Winston’s staff, Zero and his army—and Wick, of course. The prolonged finale ends with the obligatory final face-off between Wick and Zero, though the makers have a final twist up their sleeve that promises another sequel. “Parabellum,” after all, means the preparation for war, not the war itself.
The action sequences, of course, are the raison d’être for all the John Wick movies, and Stahelski, Reeves, their army of stuntmen, cinematographer Dan Lausten, and editor Evan Schiff combine their skills to create a succession of wild set pieces. Unfortunately, even as they increase in size and trickery, they grow increasingly tiresome. There’s plenty of verve in the early ones—the initial clash in the library, the knife-and-hatchet encounter, and the carriage-horse routine are all imaginative and exhilarating (if awfully explicit in violence quotients).
By the time Wick gets to North Africa, however, overkill sets in, in every sense. The battle that Wick, Sophia and her canines engage in with Berrada’s nearly endless supply of minions goes on way too long, and grows more and more repetitive—by the twentieth time we’re treated to a shot of some anonymous turbaned henchman being attacked in the groin by a dog, the sight has lost whatever shock effect it might once have had. The final confrontation, with lots of glass and mirrors, is more than a little reminiscent of the one in the last movie (as well as plenty of other films unrelated to the franchise), and it too feels endless, though it’s enlivened somewhat by Dacascos’ jokey contributions.
His performance one of the pleasures in the picture, along with the customarily smooth turns by McShane, Fishburne and Reddick. Elsewhere the casting yields fewer rewards than you might expect. Huston and Berry sink their teeth into their roles almost as much as Sophia’s dogs sink theirs into villains’ private parts, but even what are essentially comic-book characters deserve more than that. And Dillon is an utter stick as the Adjudicator—while Taghmaoui makes a rather feeble ultimate villain.
Unlike a great many sequels, “John Wick 3” probably won’t disappoint fans of the series; to cite another picture from Reeves’s résumé, it’s no “Matrix Revolutions.” But it is a bloated chapter in the saga, one that proves that more can actually mean less.