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May 18, 2019

‘John Wick – Chapter 3’ Review: An Action Franchise As Unstoppable As Its Namesake

Think of your favorite action movie franchise with at least three entries, and then be honest with yourself. Odds are, whichever franchise you’re picturing, those first three films have been more than a little inconsistent. Lethal Weapon 3 leans too comedic, Die Hard 2: Die Harder is tonally all over the place, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a cartoonish dud, Mission: Impossible 2 is ridiculous for the wrong reasons — these are facts. (Subjective facts, but still…) The only exceptions to the rule are the Bourne trilogy and the first four (!) films in Jackie Chan’s Police Story film series. Well, they were the only exceptions.

John Wick: Chapter 3 not only picks up immediately after the ending of its predecessor, but it also maintains and delivers the same fantastically high degree of carnage, momentum, and beautifully kick-ass style. It’s a two-hour blast of adrenaline and awe that revisits old characters, introduces new ones, and continues to expand its world in electrifying ways. There are some bumps, to be sure, but they take a back seat to personality, wonder, and throat-crushing glee.

We meet Wick (Keanu Reeves, Parenthood) where we left him — on the run through New York City while the clock ticks down towards a $14 million contract on his head. He’s “excommunicado” having broken one of the rules of The Continental, and now a city filled with hopeful assassins have him in their cross-hairs. Wick and his unnamed canine sidekick scramble to call in favors from faces both familiar (Ian McShane, The Last of Shiela; Lance Reddick, White House Down) and fresh (Anjelica Huston, Choke; Halle Berry, Kidnap) en route to a meeting with the elusive Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui, Vantage Point) who sits at the head of the organization’s High Table, and as consequences and loyalty clash from NYC to Casablanca, the streets run red with blood.

Do moviegoers even deserve an action franchise this damn great? I can’t think of anything American audiences have done in recent years to warrant this reward, but here we are. The John Wick films exist in the rarefied air of the mid-budget studio picture — they’re not scrappy indies, they’re not CG-filled blockbusters — and each has offered up a spectacular blend of creativity and talent. Like its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 3 ups the ante on the action while opening new doors on its world-building, and it does it all while walking a fine line between the serious and the ridiculous. These characters are playing with life or death stakes, but that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from having fun in the process.

Logic dictates Wick would cut his hair and shave or change his clothes at the very least to avoid detection, but the films work by their own rules. It’s neither confidence nor a desire for fair play that keeps Wick’s appearance the same, it’s the simple recognition that he’s an icon. He’s John mother fucking Wick, “the boogeyman” out for blood, and when even the number one baddie (Mark Dacascos, Brotherhood of the Wolf) and his henchmen pause to geek out over meeting Wick in between punches and kicks it’s clear that the characters and film alike recognize him for what he is.

It’s still a world where civilians are wholly indifferent to the slaughter and corpses around them, where the same coin that buys a bulletproof suit or an arsenal of weapons also pays for a cab ride uptown, and where absolutely anything can become a weapon in the right hands. The first kill is in the quiet confines of a library, and it guarantees you’ll never underestimate a hardcover book again. Guns and knives are the most frequently used tools of death but don’t turn your back on the dogs and horses. The brutality is frequent, bloody, and a unique combination of utter overkill and the efficiently stylized.

John Wick Halle Berry

Director Chad Stahelski (John Wick: Chapter 2) once again makes the inarguable case for letting former stunt/action coordinators take the reins on an action film as they understand what’s possible and how best to achieve it for the camera. The choreography here is a bruising blend of gunplay, martial arts, blade action, and straightforward scrapping — an extended fight in an antique weapons shop is a set-piece for the ages — and while Stahelski and Reeves aren’t above borrowing from films as varied as Game of Death and The Villainess they’re more than capable of delivering jaw-dropping sequences that are wholly their own too. A Morocco-set fight featuring Berry’s hotel manager and her two canine friends is a mesmerizing stunner of deliberate chaos as humans and dogs work in beautiful tandem.

Berry and her mutts are a tremendous addition here as they deliver on both the action front and with character beats. We’re teased a professional past between Sofia (Berry) and Wick and a daughter she had to send away to protect, and it’s just one of many threads you’ll be eager to see explored down the road. We also get a peek into Wick’s childhood through a visit to The Director (Huston) and her school training girls and boys in a world of precision and pain. Toss in a return from the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, Event Horizon) and the introduction of two badasses played by The Raid 2‘s Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian, and you have an ensemble firing on nearly all cylinders.

Nearly, because not all of the new additions work. The reveal and brief visit with The Elder underwhelms as a payoff to the buildup due both to casting and setting — it’s an absurd but wonderful visual seeing Wick trek through the desert in his trademarked black suit, but as the headquarters of this entire organization it just doesn’t feel right. The introduction of The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon, Billions) is a similar misstep as the character feels far too powerful for the performance. In a franchise built on personality and gravitas, she feels out of place as the kind of snotty “villain” you’ve seen in far lesser films, and there’s just no weight to Dillon’s performance or presence.

The joys of the film are legion, but one deserves particular mention in a cinemascape filled with young stars, bland action, and CG effects doing the heavy lifting. We, of course, get plenty of visual trickery and stunt doubles here — Reeves’ is actually a little more noticeable this time around — but even with those sleight of hand shenanigans the film still gifts viewers with fantastic and impressive action beats performed quite clearly by three actors in their fifties. Reeves (54), Berry (52), and Dacascos (55) put in the work via excessive training and exercise to deliver sequences we’ll be talking about for years to come, and it’s just one aspect of the dedication and talent that makes this franchise an all-timer. Reeves may not be as fast as some of his opponents, but he convinces through technique and sheer blunt force as he hobbles and chops his way through a barrage of baddies.

John Wick: Chapter 3 is hopefully far from the last we’ll be seeing of Mr. Wick and friends. Like Chapter 2, the film tells its own “complete” story while also being a part of a far bigger one. Make no mistake, in a genre that too often ignores non-action elements to focus on the action these films are masterpieces that sacrifice absolutely nothing. We may not deserve them, but we should sure as hell be cherishing them.

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