The third installment of the unlikely franchise about a professional killer shooting and stabbing his way toward some sort of redemption, the deliriously violent "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum" lives up to the high standards set by previous installments of the sleekly stylish and exciting series.
Keanu Reeves once again plays the monosyllabic John Wick, a retired assassin who's drawn back into the life after some Russian punks steal his car and kill his dog, a posthumous gift from his wife, Helen, who'd just died of cancer.
He wreaked brutal vengeance upon everyone who crossed him, and the succeeding films have followed the rippling effects of his fateful decision to dip his toe back into his old blood-spilling ways. His reasons for returning may have been noble, but once the past had his scent again, it wasn't eager to let him go.
The series introduced us to a complex underworld of criminality, hinted at in the first film, then fleshed out and expanded in the second. The denizens of this strangely civil world adhere to a strict code of engagement and they pay dearly for any infraction. At the end of the previous film, Wick committed a major no-no, executing a member of the High Table, the shadowy guild of killers who rule over this world. "Parabellum" picks up immediately where that film left off, finding Wick excommunicated, with a $14 million bounty on his head and the entire population of the criminal underworld very keen to collect.
From there, the film moves at a breakneck pace, with scene after scene of relentless, pulverizing action. These fight scenes are both cartoonish and beautifully choreographed, and there's a dancerly quality to the intricately rendered mayhem, a swirling kaleidoscope of action and movement.
Each film has introduced a few additions to characters, and this time the new cast members include Anjelica Huston, Halle Berry, and best of all: Asia Kate Dillon as a representative of the High Table known only as The Adjudicator. Sent to pass judgement those who've offered aid to Wick, Dillon is able to project a quiet menace without so much as raising their voice or lifting a finger in battle.
With each new set piece, you can feel director Chad Stahelski and his stunt team working overtime to top themselves with fights involving books, swords, motorcycles, horses, and sword fights on motorcycles. And knives, lots and lots of knives. There's always a winking humor and playfulness to the violence in the "John Wick" films.
I still admit to feeling some slight internal conflict about these films, which fetishize gun violence in some occasionally uncomfortable ways. The clear fantasy of the world it presents does help, but only slightly. And I can't help wishing the filmmakers had found a way for the film to say something about gun violence it gleefully doles out.
But for pure excitement and craft, the "John Wick" films have grown into one of our most reliable action franchises -- right up there with the "Mission: Impossible" series. When you just sit back and marvel at the skill and imagination that went into its creation, it's hard not to be an admirer. Summer movie season may just be beginning, but I can't imagine I'll be seeing a more thrilling action film this year.