With John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski and his team at 87Eleven Productions have achieved one of the rarest and most impressive feats in Hollywood filmmaking: they've made a trilogy (for now) in which every film has improved upon the one preceding. And 2014's John Wick wasn't any kind of low bar to clear in the first place, which means that by this point, we've reached some kind of stratospheric heights where only the gods can live. The gods in this case being Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission: Impossible - Fallout, and yes, might as well start uncorking the hyperbole right away, Parabellum deserves to be talked about in relation to those two films and not very many others. For one thing, it shares with those films and only those films out of the whole of the 2010s the quality of being so constantly frenetic in its deployment of action scenes filled to bursting with outrageously good stuntwork that I walked out of the theater as physically tired as if I'd spent the 130 minutes jogging.

And yes, well, might as well get it out there. Aye, Parabellum is 130 minutes: eight minutes longer than John Wick: Chapter 2 and a whole 29 minutes longer than John Wick. Which is enough time for it to be the first film in the series that I do wish was a bit shorter, or at least that it filled its time with different things. There's an extremely obvious place right in the middle of the film where it jams on the breaks a bit too hard for a bit too long, no longer content to flavor the action scenes with some deliciously goofy but entirely straight-faced world-building, as Chapter 2 did, but to give itself over to the world building entirely. And while I enjoy the operatic, kitschy excesses of the franchise's mythology about a worldwide network of assassins working under the shadow dictates of the High Table, I don't "ten minutes of talking" enjoy them.

But that's a little matter - microscopically little. Parabellum is indulgent, sure, but most of what it indulges in is tremendously great cinema, and some of the finest action sequences in the medium's history. It is, to be fair, mostly just more of the same as Chapter 2, but all the emphasis goes on that "more". It's full of a wider variety of setpieces in more places with a greater range of fighting styles, involving more characters who go deeper into the franchise's fantastic world. It has more complicated sets and more elaborate ideas about what kind of choreography to stage within them. It has more extensive po-faced plotting about who owes what to whom and how this or that person is responsible for whichever part of this universe, and also much more of a sense of humor about how ridiculous this all is, and it's okay if you just want to come in and soak it all up and laugh, and laugh.

The plot... what plot? The plot finds John Wick (Keanu Reeves, finding impressive new ways to deepen his character's anxieties and frustrations with the world while simultaneously being given fewer lines than ever) trying to not die despite the best efforts of a great many talented people to kill him. He calls in favors from people who are extremely resentful to be reminded that he owes them favors, and he has to deal with the starstruck, fanboyish admiration of the man most likely to put a sword through his belly. If the first movie was a fairly transparent allegory for depression and mourning, this film is what happens when depression and mourning end: it is the story of a man who at this point just wants to be left alone to let all of humanity in its misery and pointlessness go on without him. And this is something he is never permitted to do. Reeves is excellent at foregrounding Wick's petulance and exhaustion - lest we forget, this whole trilogy has all taken place in the span of something like a month - and one of the great successes of Parabellum lies in how it manages to convincingly portray him as an invulnerable super-warrior, while also letting us see with every wince and sigh how each and every single gunshot, stab wound, and God knows what else is taking its toll on him.

That being said, it's a fool's errand to look at a film like this because you want a great psychological actor. You come for the outrageously bold colors and shapes of Kevin Kavanaugh's production design and Dan Lausten's cinematography, you come for the stunt team's outstanding choreography, you come for the ways that editor Evan Schiff carefully measures out shots to make sure that the choreography is given its best due. There are a number of moments in Parabellum that are one one level just showcases for how good the filmmakers are at planning all of this: early on, Wick jabs a horse's shoulder to make it kick its legs into one of the many henchmen the film throws at him. It's a great bit, one of the first moments where the film turns to you and says "so by the way, this is a comedy, just a very dry one", and that could be that. Except! The film waits precisely the right amount of time to have him do the same thing to another henchmen: long enough that it doesn't feel like a lazy re-use of a fun gimmick, short enough that it pays off our delight at the first time it happened. And the second time, he does it twice in quick successes, to pay it off even more. It's just so smart: every single fight scene is that perfectly structured throughout its length, with set-ups and call-backs and rhymes and such perfect rhythm that the film never feels like it slows down or gets draggy. For 130 minutes that are almost all fight scenes, keeping things always fresh and lively is an amazing achievement, the moreso when some of those fight scenes are so long: there's a sequence with Wick, a reluctant ally played by Halle Berry, and a couple of dogs, fighting their way around a heavily armed compound that just keeps going and going, and not once does it feel padded or anything but 100% inspired.

The pleasures of the film, then, are the pleasures of virtuosity: virtuosity by the stunt team and the crew heads alike. It's been an easy comparison for this series' whole history to say it's basically ballet, a study in watching people effortlessly move their bodies in ridiculous ways that you and I could never do, and Parabellum makes it explicit, by suggesting that before he was an assassin, Wick was an orphan at ballet school. Also by cutting back and forth between a ballet sequence and a series of stealthy murders. The point being, Parabellum is really and truly just showing off, creating a completely implausible world, both narratively and physically (one space is made entirely out of glass, for the apparently solitary reason that it would be swell for a couple of guys to keep throwing each other through that glass at), just so that world can facilitate some of the most exquisite fight scenes on the books. It is a pure thing, pure in its representation of movement, of color, of pop-art compositions of people being situated into unreal environments for the visual pleasure of that unreality more than anything else (it looks more like a great, aggressively-colored comic book than any comic book movie I've ever seen). It is about the most raw, primordial, lizard-brain pleasures of cinema being turned up their loudest, brightest levels, transforming the series into pure cartoon zaniness; but what a fucking cartoon!

Reviews in this series
John Wick (Stahelski and Leitch, 2014)
John Wick: Chapter 2 (Stahelski, 2017)
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (Stahelski, 2019)