Like both of its predecessors, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” features quite a lot of people being shot in the head. It would be difficult to estimate the total number of people who are shot in the head in this film – likely somewhere in the range of 30 or 40 – and it’s possible that “John Wick: Chapter 2” might have contained just as many. But it certainly feels like more here. Each headshot has its own slight variations: it might be preceded by a bout of judo-style grappling, or a kick to the crotch, or a punch, or a shot to the chest. One headshot is delivered underwater. But the basic sequence is the same: John Wick (Keanu Reeves) gets into close range, shoots an anonymous henchman in the head, a demure half-pint of blood spritzes outward like briskly exhaled smoke, and he moves on to the next one. After a certain point, watching John Wick shoot people in the head starts to weirdly resemble a gardener misting orchids with a spray bottle.
Action filmmaking is one of the purest forms of cinema that exists, and fight choreography can be as graceful, intricate, and demanding as ballet. On a level of pure craft, then, “John Wick 3” is unquestionably great action filmmaking — certainly the most technically accomplished of the series thus far, with a good dozen scenes that could only have been pulled off by a director, a stunt team, an editor, and a cast working at the absolute highest level. But as masterfully executed as the action is, watching two-plus hours of mayhem without any palpable dramatic stakes, or nuance, or any emotion at all save bloodlust offers undeniably diminishing returns. There are only so many times you can see a bullet pass through a skull before it gets deadening, and then almost dull.
Directed once again by stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski, “Chapter 3” begins precisely where “Chapter 2” left off. John Wick, the once-retired assassin spurred back into action by the death of his puppy, has been declared “excommunicado” by the High Table — the leadership of the shadowy secret society of killers to which he once belonged — as punishment for committing a killing in the Continental Hotel, the assassin world’s designated safe space. This means that he has a $14 million bounty on his head, and hundreds of his fellow contract killers are eager to claim the prize.
The opening fight sequence is by far the best and most frenetic the film has to offer, as Wick scrambles for safety across Manhattan while countless gangs of assassins spill out of the woodwork in pursuit; it’s like watching a hyper-caffeinated version of “The Warriors” played at triple speed. As always, Reeves is a joy to watch, and he flings himself into a series of improvised battles armed with, among other things, a horse, a belt, and a public library book that he thoughtfully returns to the shelf afterward. (As a general rule, watching Wick kill people with anything other than a gun is always more interesting than watching him kill people with a gun.)
He escapes the madness long enough to find sanctuary with a high ranking High Table figure (Anjelica Huston, reimagining Morticia Addams as an angry ballet director) who was once his mentor. Wick calls in a favor, securing safe passage to Morocco, where he hopes to find the mysterious leader of the High Table and offer to atone for his crime. There he has a rendezvous with another character from his past, Sofia (Halle Berry), who is reluctantly convinced to accompany Wick into battle.
Meanwhile, a ruthlessly by-the-book bureaucrat known as the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) arrives at the Continental to dispense further punishments related to the Wick affair, which includes some intense jousting – verbally, for once – with Wick-sympathizers Winston (Ian McShane) and Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). And to track Wick himself, the Adjudicator dispatches a wisecracking sushi-chef/contract killer called Zero (Mark Dacascos).
Every single one of the abovementioned actors are allowed to do interestingly idiosyncratic work with their roles, but as usual the film is all about Reeves. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood actors of his generation, Reeves is fanatically committed to nailing his action scenes here, and all the while glimmers of his inherent soulfulness, as hard as he tries to tamp them down, give Wick a strange sort of warmth that allows the character to remain likable despite doing little here to deserve that likability.
And truly, it’s important to stress just how well-made this film is. Since making his debut on the first “John Wick,” Stahelski’s technical ambition and ability has grown substantially each time out, and it’s hard to think of too many filmmakers outside of Asia who are willing to invest the sort of care and detail-work into combat scenes that Stahelski provides over and over again. (Alongside DP Dan Laustsen and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh, he even takes the time to make some of these scenes actually beautiful, especially a fluorescent-lit, glass-walled battleground that brings to mind “Enter the Dragon’s” famous hall of mirrors.) But it’s tough not to wish he’d start applying these obvious talents to scenes that have actual emotional weight, or that strive for a reaction beyond “whoa, that was cool.”
As it stretches beyond the two-hour mark the film becomes, to use a loaded term, desensitizing. That’s a word that’s usually thrown around by politicians trying to blame gangsta rap, or heavy metal, or first-person-shooters, or who knows what else for real-world violence, and their arguments have never been particularly convincing. But watching “John Wick 3” is an exercise of pure aesthetic desensitization – the violence we see here is entirely removed from the reality of pain, or suffering, or fear, or desire, or triumph, or loss. It means nothing to any of the characters, its consequences are never felt, and it fills almost every inch of the frame for huge uninterrupted stretches. And when that disassociation is so complete, you start to ask yourself questions that you normally wouldn’t. Namely, why am I watching this?
One thing “John Wick 3” has in its favor is that it is set in a completely amoral world; everyone here to whom violence is inflicted or by whom it is committed is a hardened killer, and there are no innocent bystanders. (Compare that to, say, any number of PG-13 superhero films where the implicit deaths of thousands of civilians occur offscreen.) But even this is a hard premise to sustain forever. Midway through the film, Wick and his primary antagonist Zero finally come face-to-face in the middle of Penn Station, and rush toward each other with weapons at the ready. But just as they’re about to begin battle, they come to a sudden halt – a class of elementary school kids, all holding hands, are being lead through the station in single file by their teacher. The film plays this for a gag, as the two combatants are forced to make small talk until the kids pass by. But if you’ve watched the news at all over the last several years, it’s tough to reconcile the way the film wants us to feel about ceaseless, graphic gun violence, with the associations that come from watching schoolchildren in a line being lead past a heavily-armed mass killer.
Not too long after this scene, Wick returns to the Continental and makes a request for “guns, lots of guns.” He’s lead into the hotel’s armory, and he spends some quality time inspecting a whole smorgasbord of firearms and ammunition, gazing with particular admiration at gold-plated, armor-piercing shotgun shells. Then he goes out and shoots those bullets into people’s heads for the next 15 minutes.