With its florid title, Fortnite tie-ins, and blockbuster-sized predictions that it will unseat Avengers: Endgame at the box office, John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum opens this weekend—cementing the bizarre fact that the ultraviolent, relatively low-fi action flick that was 2014’s John Wick has grown into a massive, full-on, crowd-pleasing franchise. By all rights, the fantastic John Wick should have joined The Raid, Ong-Bak, and Dredd in the recent canon of great-but-underseen action flicks, but somehow, here we are. Never underestimate the popular appeal of watching Keanu Reeves shoot thousands of bad guys because some jerks murdered his puppy.
That was, essentially, the entire plot of John Wick—well, that and watching Keanu be equal parts funny, mopey, and brutal. But then things got weird, in the best ways: Hinted at in the first film, but expanded in the sequels, there’s now a strange, remarkably thorough (if remarkably confusing) mythology that accompanies all of John Wick’s righteous headshots, featuring secret societies of assassins, ancient and baroque codes of conduct, and really nice mansions (to shoot people in).
In the first few minutes, John Wick kills people with a library book, about fourteen zillion knives, and A HORSE.
Sure, the bread and butter of any John Wick movie is its skull-splitting, blood-splattering action scenes—filmed here, as inventively, exhilaratingly, and wince-inducingly as ever, by stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski—but nearly as interesting, it turns out, is the fantastical world John Wick skulks around in between his massacres. Plenty of action movies have shoot-outs; not many have Angelica Houston sneering, “Life is suffering, life is pain” as she rules over some very driven ballerinas. Lots of revenge flicks have motorcycle chases; fewer balance out the squeal of burning rubber with a whiskey-sipping Ian McShane murmuring Latin and grandiose monologues from a pigeon-loving Laurence Fishburne. John Wick 3 is, thankfully, exactly as bonkers as it should be, with a bad guy (Mark Dacascos) who just wants to be John Wick’s BFF, a bureaucrat known only as “The Adjudicator” (Asia Kate Dillon) who coldly lays out this world’s nonsense rules (so, of course, Keanu can immediately crash and shoot and stab through them), Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and a vision quest that may or may not be in search of… the world’s very first assassin? It’s not entirely clear, but it’s excellent.
Also excellent, of course, is all that action, which remains thrilling and brutal and witty—what should feel like grotesque body horror is elevated to a no-holds-barred, Looney Tunes-level of insanity. (In the first few minutes, John Wick kills people with a library book, about fourteen zillion knives, and A HORSE.) With the choreographed spectacle of an old-school musical and the bone-thudding skill of a great action director, this thing moves, its death count skyrocketing between glowering dialogues about fealty and honor. Oh, and Halle Berry shows up too, along with two dogs of her own, who also kill a billion bad guys—one sequence alone, in which a small army gets utterly annihilated by Reeves, Berry, and those two very angry dogs (WHO ARE WEARING BULLETPROOF VESTS!), is worth the price of admission.
So, yes: As evidenced by its title, and by any given shot of John Wick cuddling with his dog and/or wiping out a fortress of faceless henchmen (well, maybe they weren’t faceless before, but after…), John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum is just as good and fun and batshit as the series’ previous installments. Now that I think about it, of course watching the world’s greatest, grumpiest assassin indirectly avenge a puppy by using a goddamn murder horse is the apex of cinema. Guess it’s not surprising, after all, that this thing became a bunch of beloved blockbusters.