Things look dicey for Keanu Reeves’ zen hitman as Parabellum begins. He's now ‘excommunicado’ after breaking secret hitman club rules in the previous film, and on the run with a $14m bounty on his bonce. Clocks tick ominously, assassins lurk, help proves elusive… and it’s pissing it down. Does he have a hope in hell? Can a horse kick like a bastard?
A hit, man
The answer to both is ‘Yes’, just as it is for the implied question: can John Wick go the distance with cinema’s action frontliners? While The Rock, Jason Statham and Tom Cruise keep seeking new ways to flex muscle, Reeves, director Chad Stahelski and creator Derek Kolstad have staked out a genre niche by wedding neon-drunk high-stylisations, stealthy (under)world-building and rain-soaked pop-existentialism to lashings of ever-inventive brutality. And they aren’t letting up. If you thought Wick 2’s turbo-powered takedowns could not be out-powered, think on: intermittent stumbles aside, Parabellum swiftly asserts itself as 2019’s actioner to beat.
Lest anyone worry that valuable seconds between smackdowns might be wasted on Russian literature, reassurance arrives fast when Wick visits a library and weaponises a Russian hardback against a formidably tall goon. After that statement of intent, altercations involving customised guns, knives, motorbikes and horse fu follow at full pelt, giving John’s improvisatory kill-skills the Wick-edest workout.
Wick 3 can’t maintain that momentum throughout, but it’ll be damned if it doesn’t try when it counts. Even if Parabellum doesn’t deviate wildly from 2, it builds on the Wick-iverse’s foundations when the criminal High Table’s steely Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) arrives, armed with ninjas to punish anyone who dares assist Wick. Meanwhile, a little Wick history emerges as he hits Casablanca and asks old pal Sofia (Halle Berry) to help him contact the mysterious figure who overrules the High Table.
If you can’t guess where this is headed, you don’t know Wick. Endearingly portentous exchanges about honour and consequence follow, culminating in convulsive confrontations that would be deadening if Stahelski did not direct with such ferocious clarity and kinetic fetishism. The already infamous set-piece involving Sofia’s dogs grabs you by the knackers. Reeves says little and sports the expression of someone who’s been hit too much, smartly keeping our attentions focused on his capacity to dust a goon; meanwhile, Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne take up the over-acting slack gleefully.
Mark Dacascos adds fiery charisma as a one-on-one challenge waiting to happen, though a few missteps mount before the final showdown. Berry attacks her role so hungrily, it’s a shame she’s swiftly sidelined; likewise, Dillon’s charisma deserved more than a walk-on/walk-off role. Wick’s favourite fight move is also faintly over-used, depending on your appetite for that old throw-down/shoot-in-face routine. And although the script gives Reeves some nicely deadpan one-liners (“I get it…”) and Anjelica Huston some deliciously rum pulp-poetry, that Matrix quote runs surplus to requirements.
Yet most complaints are forgivable for the action peaks. Recalling The Villainess, the bike/swords set-piece has you dangling off your saddle in readiness for the climax, where bones/glass splinter and loaded images flag up key themes with a pleasing brazenness. Mixing galvanised abstraction into pummelling artistry, Stahelski’s exuberantly excessive direction embraces action cinema’s absurdities full-on and sends them hurtling off the scale. When one character coolly dubs their fight “pretty good”, it’s the biggest understatement going in the most deliriously overstated actioner of 2019 thus far. Message to Hobbs & Shaw, courtesy of Mr Wick: “Let’s do this.”