Full of empty, stakeless action, “John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum,” starring Keanu Reeves, succeeds less as a martial-arts spectacle than as a post-apocalyptic political drama.
“John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum” is almost all action, and its extended fight scenes range from numbing to repellent to interesting. “Interesting” isn’t a compliment; it is what happens when filmmakers reduce drama to a technical problem that viewers are invited to observe being solved. The movie, directed by Chad Stahelski, a martial-arts expert and a longtime stunt performer and coördinator, expends great effort finding clever touches and novel twists in confrontations whose outcomes are all but inevitable: John Wick and anyone on his side will prevail, despite being absurdly outnumbered, out-equipped, and otherwise disadvantaged. Nonetheless, the movie—which features a screenplay that could have been written by Western Union and hardly enough fight-free scenes to fill a trailer—has a remarkable overarching conceit. It’s a true high-concept film, and, even when its particulars are evacuated without a trace, it leaves a chill in a higher dimension. Oddly, the insular abstraction of its drama evokes—perhaps unintentionally—significant and terrifying real-world political crises.
At the end of the previous film in the franchise, “John Wick: Chapter 2,” the eponymous hitman (Keanu Reeves)—who, in the first film, was dragged back into mayhem after a puppy given to him by his late wife was killed—is the target of a contract held by the High Table, a grand international consortium of murder that’s managed at a teeming, Wes Andersonian office featuring chalkboards, rotary phones, typewriters, and green-monochrome C.R.T. terminals. John, who has taken refuge in a downtown Manhattan hotel called the Continental, a High Table sanctuary, is given a one-hour head start by its manager, Winston (Ian McShane), who is his friend. Once back in the city streets, John discovers that seemingly innocuous passersby are giving him the evil eye, as High Table emissaries.
This paranoid premise is the starting point for “Chapter 3.” The High Table still has it in for John, and woe betide his friends, too—anyone who has had the misfortune to do him a good turn is targeted by the High Table as well. John, stabbed by one of its minions at the main branch of the New York Public Library (where he makes good on the proverb about the might of words by using a book as a lethal weapon against a swordsman), goes to Chinatown and is sewn up by an elderly doctor (Randall Duk Kim). The doctor is racing against the clock—at 6 P.M. sharp, the contract goes into effect. Fearing that the High Table won’t believe he stopped treatment at the chiming of the hour, the doctor commands John to shoot him in nonlethal places, offering the criminal overlords a false but persuasive sign that he was forced to help.
John has other friends who also get in trouble for showing him sympathy. The herald of their miseries is the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), a woman who is dispatched by the High Table to issue ultimatums and order immediate, on-site, hands-on punishments, backed up by her packs of sociopathic underlings. John’s unfortunately implicated accomplices include Winston; a stern Belarusian taskmistress of a ballet company (Anjelica Huston), who also reveals a glimmer of John’s distant backstory; the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), distinguished by his flock of carrier pigeons; and a mysterious killer in Casablanca named Sofia (Halle Berry), with whom he’s got history.
Alone and in their company, John must fight his way out of absurd situations. When they involve knives and swords, they have a choreographic athleticism that’s nothing new but nonetheless arm’s-length impressive. When they involve other accessories, such as trained attack dogs, horses in a New York stable, and motorcycles, they’re deadly earnest and play out as ridiculous but not funny. (One absurd high-speed battle, staged on a deserted Manhattan Bridge, might as well have been done by C.G.I.) And when they involve firearms, they’re simply disgusting, pornographic, with John and others pumping bullets into bodies at close range—and, in particular, into heads. Stahelski takes care to keep most of those heads under turbans or helmets, so that point-blank gunfire shows no gory mutilations but merely vaporizes heads in picturesque puffs of red mist.
Even some of the scenes of swordplay reflect a sadistic joy that’s not the character’s but the filmmaker’s own. The fights convey the impression of watching a video game being played with adolescent earnestness, even as it has been rigged for the player to win. The non-fight scenes have a seemingly unintentional silliness as well; a scene when John is dumped in the Moroccan desert without water brings to mind Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman brilliantly singing in the face of mortal thirst in “Ishtar.” The most imposing presence in the movie isn’t an actor—it’s a vast, glossy, mirrored hall of glass and video screens in the Continental, where the final set piece is staged.
The emptiness of the action in “Parabellum” is matched by its stakelessness, its lack of physical or societal context. John can get from midtown to Chinatown instantaneously, with an effortlessness that the M.T.A. might envy, and from a New York ballet palace to Morocco with nary an airport or airplane in sight. This absence of interstitial inconveniences lets Stahelski and the screenwriters avoid any hint of contemplation or introspection, whether on their own part or that of their characters. John can go blazing through traffic lights on horseback under a Brooklyn El train and not turn a head or get a ticket. During a crowded commuter hour, the main hall of Grand Central Terminal becomes the site of a battle that leaves bloody corpses in its wake—and leaves no trace in the world at large. (The station’s military guards, with their semiautomatic weapons, are nowhere to be seen, either.) Chinatown’s buildings and alleys get filled with the hacked-up victims of unknown killers, and so does an aerie in the Lower East Side, but neither massacre makes a headline or a tweet.
On the other hand, the hermeticism of the action in “Parabellum” is what lends it an uncanny paranoiac frisson. The movie succeeds less as a martial-arts spectacle than as a post-apocalyptic political drama, conjuring a world in which a super-secret agency can order virtually public executions and pull them off without a trace, and without fear of exposure, whether in the press or on social media—conjuring, seemingly unwittingly, an ironclad regime of censorship. The movie adds to that ambient terror and silence a perfect network of surveillance, in which a ubiquitous and all-knowing network of agents recognizes and confronts John Wick at every turn. What the film depicts, perhaps unwittingly, is a vision of the modern technological state, one in which—as recently reported by Sue Halpern—facial-recognition software and comprehensive governmental databases will be linked by a 5G network to eliminate the concept of public anonymity, and to make everyone’s activities instantaneously known to the state, in the interest of fealty, conformity, and punishment. In effect, what “Parabellum” suggests is the sort of political and ethnic surveillance that China is currently putting into effect. As of now, the movie isn’t scheduled for release there; even though the film’s implicit politics may be in the background here, I wonder whether they come through clearly to the authorities there.