THE CONTINENTAL HOTEL — All actions have consequences, especially for assassins. Rules and social contracts may be the only things that separate us from the animals, but in John Wick's New York, it's those that most stringently abide by the rules that you have to look out for.
That's the overall message of "John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum," stuck in there amidst all the beautifully staged headshots, stabbings and dog bites.
And oh, there are a lot of headshots. So many people die in this film. Like, firmly in the triple digits (I lost count after Wick stabbed a dude in the eye).
Why does Wick need to kill so many people? Ever since Wick retaliated for the theft of his car and the murder of his puppy in 2014's "John Wick," people in his part of the criminal underworld of New York have wanted him dead. The first film in the franchise hinted at this criminal underworld, where the Continental Hotel acted as a safe house for the world's most deadly assassins. Its only rule: Do not kill anyone on hotel grounds. Wick broke this rule at the end of "Chapter 2," making him "excommunicado" to the assassin community.
"Parabellum" (the subtitle is part of a longer Latin phrase, "si vis pacem, para bellum" — if you want peace, prepare for war) picks up mere seconds after "Chapter 2" left off, with Keanu Reeves' John Wick on the run for his life before the bounty on his head is enforced for killing at the Continental. It doesn't take long for him to find a challenger, whom he promptly kills with a library book. He also uses swords, knives, motorcycles, horses and old Confederate pistols to attack his enemies.
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His travels eventually take him to Casablanca, where he meets up with Sofia (Halle Berry), and later Berrada (Jerome Flynn) and The Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), and back to The Continental, to finish what he started.
Whereas the first two films in this multi-million dollar franchise used the Continental and its machinations as a backdrop, "Parabellum" is all about what this world entails, where every cab driver or homeless man could be out to kill.
And it's not just Wick who has to answer for his crimes. Anyone who helps him along the way is being held accountable by an enforcer known only as The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who works for The High Table, the governing body of assassins.
If all of this sounds like too much exposition, you're right and wrong. The fight scenes move at a steady clip. But in between every fight, there's a conversation around a table with increasingly higher-ranking members of the High Table about rules, fealty and what happens when those rules are broken. Viewers who were left hungry about the inner workings of John Wick's world after the first two films will feast here.
Those scenes are needed to frame the action scenes that come later, though. The grief and the damnation of the first and second films, respectively, informed how the fight scenes looked and felt. Similarly, all of the talk about rules in "Parabellum" tells the viewer how to watch the ordered chaos of the fights that come next, with each new villain adhering to whatever terms were just established.
The result is a glorious ballet of bullets and violence lit in a neon glow that taps into the audience's primal need for Old Testament order and vengeance while simultaneously getting us to root for an underdog who breaks all the rules.
The fight scenes are all expertly staged (the whole franchise was directed by Chad Stahelski, Reeves' stunt double on "The Matrix"). There's no shaky-cam "Bourne Supremacy"-style camera-work here, and the viewer is always aware of where each character is, even when off-screen.
Where this film falters is in its back half, which it loads full of fight after fight with no break, only to end on a shocking turn of events that would have made for a poignant ending if the audience didn't know to expect a cliffhanger setup for "John Wick: Chapter 4." How much longer can this franchise return to the same well? All of the events in these movies take place within one month. Give ol' John some time to rest. This is by far the franchise's messiest entry, but it's also its most entertaining.
"John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum" is rated R for pervasive strong violence and some language. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.