The full, properly punctuated title is “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” and while “parabellum” comes from the Latin meaning “prepare for war,” it’s also the name of an old-timey brand of German semiautomatic pistol, also known as the Luger.
There’s a bonus word association as well. Parabellum rhymes with “cerebellum,” i.e., part of the human brain. Since most of the blood and some of the brain matter belonging to the super-assassin’s adversaries ends up in a splurch against the nearest wall or glass surface, in quick digital bursts, “Cerebellum” is the logical subtitle for a fourth “John Wick” movie starring Keanu Reeves, made possible by the likely financial success of this one.
This one’s the best of the three so far. It boasts many fine recreational-sadism qualities, high among them a richly saturated look courtesy of Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen (“Crimson Peak,” “The Shape of Water”) resembling the most artful Instagram photo essay imaginable.
Regarding the screenplay’s use of exposition, well, there really isn’t any, so in fact it has no use for it. Who needs it? Four credited screenwriters apparently enjoyed some nice long lunches. Occasional bits of story and background come and go, just enough to remind us that Wick did a bad thing – murdered an opponent within the verboten confines of New York’s swanky Continental Hotel, where the assassins lounge around in comfort like poseurs at a Soho House.
“John Wick 3” picks up moments after “John Wick 2” ended, with a $14 million bounty on our man John’s head, and everyone in Manhattan after him because they need the money to buy more high-end assassin threads. A few tiny story developments and details are doled out in “John Wick 3” by Laurence Fishburne and Ian McShane, returning as the Bowery crime king and the Continental Hotel proprietor, respectively.
Elsewhere, Oscar-winning actors Anjelica Huston (as a ballet instructor mobbed up with the crime network known as the High Table) and second-billed Halle Berry make their bid for best supporting seethers. In a nicely delayed entrance, Berry’s character, the mysterious Sofia, is contacted by Wick when he really needs a favor. In Casablanca, where part of the film’s set for reasons I’ll have to research sometime, director Chad Stahelski unleashes the dogs of war. Sofia’s companion animals, Belgian Malinois by breed, have been trained to kill and go for the groin, are plainly are recent graduates of the Moroccan School of Canine Parkour.
The most diverting ultraviolence in “John Wick 3,” for me, front-loads itself into the film’s first half. The Moroccan melee blends legit stunt work and copious digital effects for a heinous yet nimble festival of death. The same goes for my favorite bit, set in a Manhattan Chinatown antiques warehouse, where Wick and his assailants whip knives and axes at each other at close quarters as well as long distances. The movie’s sleekly assaultive aesthetic owes everything to the gaming world, but the amalgamation of practical, physical effects and digital flourishes, most evident in a motorcycle chase on the Verrazzano Bridge, take the movie out of an earthly realm entirely.
It’s too long. It grows wearying in the second half, and woe be unto those who think for more than a millisecond about the numbing decadence baked into this sort of escapism. Whatevs. Reeves remains a paragon of cat-feet cool; Berry’s a natural complement to his steely underplaying. And the New York Public Library prologue, featuring Wick, a towering contract killer (played by NBA center Boban Marjanović) and death by hardcover, wildly exceeds the book-bashing Matt Damon doled out in “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” — 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for pervasive strong violence, and some language)