PLOT A hitman with a price on his head turns to old friends for help.
CAST Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane
RATED R (extreme violence)
BOTTOM LINE Reeves retains his crown as the king of ultraviolent action with this solid threequel.
The problem with the “John Wick” franchise, starring Keanu Reeves as a skilled assassin on the run, is that the movies are really, really good. The sets are dazzling, the costumes stylish, the action scenes astounding for their quality and quantity.
The “John Wick” movies are so good that, at times — perhaps during the 80th or 90th kung-fu fight — you start wishing they would become truly great.
“John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” the latest in the series, is undeniably entertaining. It’s an excellent example of the somewhat diminished genre known as pulp — the violent, morally indefensible junk that, for some of us, is the whole reason we fell in love with movies. Pulp has been rendered less impressive, perhaps, by so many superhero spectacles; even the artful, ambitious stuff, like last year’s “Hotel Artemis,” can struggle to find an audience. Meanwhile, though, the “John Wick” films — wildly inventive and enjoyably goofy — have turned tidy profits.
“Parabellum” gets moving quickly, launching its hero into the maelstrom he created in the 2017 film, when he killed a rival in the neutral zone of Manhattan’s Continental Hotel. For that breach of protocol -- criminals love rules in these movies — Wick is now “excommunicado,” with a $14 million bounty on his head. His aiders and abettors will also pay a price, as the Continental’s manger, Winston (the great Ian McShane), and the imperious Bowery King (a brief Laurence Fishburne) will discover. Punishment is meted out by The Adjudicator, (Asia Kate Dillon), a snippy bureaucrat from the fearsome-sounding High Table.
“Parabellum” starts off strong with a fistfight in a library (ever seen anyone killed with a book? Now you have), then slows a bit as Wick travels around seeking help from old friends. Halle Berry plays Sofia, an old acquaintance (or flame?) who guides him through Casablanca; Saïd Taghmaoui is The Elder, an almost mystical figure living in the desert. Things pick back up when Wick returns to the Continental for a showdown against the High Table militia and, simultaneously, a climactic battle against the martial-arts master Zero (Mark Dacascos), who wants Wick’s respect as much as his head.
Directed with pulse-pounding energy by Chad Stahelski and co-written by series creator Derek Kolstad, “Parabellum” falls just shy of true awesomeness. Reeves, even at 54, sometimes approaches peak-form Jackie Chan, while Stahelski occasionally seems ready for “Fury Road”-level spectacle or Christopher Nolan-caliber cool. They don’t quite get there. Most likely they’ll deliver more of the same in “John Wick: Chapter 4.” And we’ll probably love that one, too.
As any fan of Keanu Reeves knows, the crazier the movie, the more Zen his performance will be. Here are four of Reeves’ wildest and wiggiest films:
POINT BREAK (1991) Right around the time of his “Bill and Ted” days, Reeves starred in this high-octane heist flick about an FBI agent chasing a group of surfing bank robbers. Reeves’ blank yet strangely riveting acting technique began in earnest here.
SPEED (1994) Not only did this film take place mostly on a bus rigged to explode if it slows below 50 mph, it cast a wild-eyed Dennis Hopper as the terrorist mastermind. Reeves plays the unflappable cop who saves the day and gets the girl (Sandra Bullock).
THE MATRIX (1999) The sci-fi movie that launched a franchise (and roughly thousands of imitations) starred Reeves as Thomas "Neo" Anderson, a corporate drone who realizes all of reality is a computer simulation. Logical fallacies, contrivances, impossibilities — Reeves is impervious to them all.
CONSTANTINE (2005) The “John Wick” movies owe a lot to this underrated film about an occult detective, especially the concept of a neutral-zone nightclub where angels and demons may not battle. Joining our wondrously impassive star are Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Tilda Swinton and Djimon Hounsou. — RAFER GUZMAN