Video game designers often rhapsodize about Core Loops, those small, quickly repeatable moments of coolness that can keep players glued to the controller past the point of thumb-trauma. 2014’s John Wick made this phenomenon into a spectator sport, devising a seemingly infinite (and distressingly satisfying) variety of ways for Keanu Reeves to inflict grievous bodily harm on a steady stream of henchmen. John Wick: Chapter 2 somehow managed to further refine the formula, ramping up the action scenes to the verge of head-popping nirvana, while also adding new wrinkles to the agreeably odd surrounding mythology. (This is a universe in which literally Every Second Person You See is an assassin.) They were both just about perfect, in a Red Meat/Reptile Brain way.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum further expands the parameters of its distinctive brand of carnage, sometimes to its detriment. While attempting to flesh out the backstory of its hero–and possibly set the stage for a spin-off or two–it keeps piling on new bosses, secret societies, and improbably awesome hideouts, with narrative results that are both uncharacteristically flabby and … well, pretty silly, honestly. Still, the action’s the thing here, and director Chad Stahelski and his team of cheerfully lunatic stunt people have crafted another astoundingly kinetic PSA about the dangers of guns, cars, and random sharp objects. When it clicks, we’re talking grody poetry in motion.
Picking up immediately after the last film, the plot finds retired hitman/dog lover John Wick (Reeves, once again balancing zen detachment and righteously weary fury) with a growing contract on his head and a roiling boil of disposable underlings on his tail. As he attempts to kill his way up the food chain, his actions bring him into contact with a whole new bunch of lethal weirdos, including a creepy Ballet instructor (Angelica Huston), a fellow animal enthusiast (Halle Berry), and an up-and-coming killer (Mark Dacascos) with some distinctly fanboyish tendencies. While the slew of old and new supporting players are welcome to see (watching Laurence Fishburne go full ham is, as always, a thing of wonder), the focus on Perpetual Motion leaves them largely struggling to distinguish themselves from the constant explosions and squib hits. The big exception is Dacascos, a perennial B-movie highlight who takes the opportunity here to create a memorably goony villain. The moment when he and Reeves finally throw down is destined to make audiences go bananas.
Two solid hours of excess can be a bit much, even when expertly presented, and the last few moments of Parabellum suggest that the next chapter may wisely be narrowing its scope a bit. Warts and all, though, this crazily overstuffed installment resides in some awfully rarified air, where every single setpiece feels expressly designed to place the viewer in a happily disbelieving state of gawk. I mean, critically speaking: oh my god, that one bit with the knives, oh my god.