'John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum' delivers epic action, Oscar-worthy production design
"John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum" -- ★ ★ ★
More than John Woo, it's John Wow!
The first epic action set-piece in "John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum" comes at you like a bullet between the eyes.
Wick, the supposedly retired professional killer played by Keanu Reeves, takes on several other assassins anxious to claim a $14 million bounty on his head. They square off in a small room lined with glass cases filled with knives and other weapons, then execute one of the most exciting and exquisitely wrought fight sequences ever committed to film.
Speed, force and agility fuel this organically orchestrated ballet of violence and blood with daggers, swords and fists flying at the speed of machine-gun bullets.
It sucks the air out of your lungs just thinking about how the filmmakers will top this.
They do try.
Stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski chucks what made his first two Wickedly comical neo-noir thrillers so galvanizing: a keen sense of internal logic that humanized the anti-hero and kept our collective suspension of disbelief a willing matter.
Here, "Parabellum" quickly devolves into Wile E. Coyote vs. Roadrunner material, a cartoon where mortal wounds and certain death hold no meaning and produce no sense of true danger, loss or even concern.
For us, two years have passed since Wick committed a grievous crime by killing a man at the majestic, high-end Continental Hotel, the assassin world's safe zone run by the powerful Winston (Ian McShane).
For Wick, only minutes have passed since the High Table -- the shadowy leaders of the secret assassins society he once belonged to -- declared him "excommunicado" and put a bounty on his head for violating the Continental sanctuary, much to the delight of thousands of contract killers.
Wick, operating with a nicked artery, a couple of gunshot wounds and many bruises, tries to find contacts who can help him. (Good luck with that.)
He winds up locating an old friend, a fellow assassin named Sofia, played by a slightly miscast Halle Berry, who can't quite muster Reeves' level of combat commitment, and comes off more rehearsed than spontaneous in the grueling fight sequences. (Where is Michelle Rodriguez or Zoe Saldana when you need them?)
Asia Kate Dillon's flat line-readings also lack the level of inherent menace and gravitas her coldblooded, by-the-book High Table bureaucrat, called "The Adjudicator," demands. (Where's Anjelica Huston when you need her? Oh, wait, she plays The Director, a High Table lieutenant who projects loads of inherent menace without even standing up.)
Mark Dacascos supplies scenery-chewing fun to his sushi-chef/contract killer Zero, whose reverence for the legendary John Wick makes him sad that he must kill him.
Laurence Fishburne reprises his defiant, tough-guy Bowery King, whose gravitas achieves lethal levels.
"John Wick Chapter 2" deserved an Oscar nod for Kevin Kavanaugh's surrealistically noiry production design. Here, Kavanaugh tops himself with spectacular, anachronistic clashes (people use cellphones, but also old-fashioned switch boards and rotary dials) and a stunning, all-glass high-rise office building no doubt inspired by the iconic Hall of Mirrors climax from Bruce Lee's chop-sockey classic "Enter the Dragon."
But why do the glass walls stop bullets when the glass floors shatter if you land on them too hard?
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Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, Anjelica Huston
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Other: A Summit Entertainment release. Rated R for language, violence. 131 minutes