"JOHN WICK 3 — PARABELLUM" — 3 stars — Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne; R (for pervasive strong violence, and some language); in general release; running time: 131 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — If there’s any strange takeaway from this week’s lineup of new movies, it’s that Hollywood has a movie for almost every kind of dog lover.
If you’re interested in family-friendly redemption and good vibes, with cute dogs sprinkled in, you’ve got “A Dog’s Journey,” about a reincarnating pooch that becomes the guardian canine to a troubled young woman.
But if that’s not your bone, over in Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 —Parabellum,” Keanu Reeves is on a different quest: to blast, blade and batter his way through a never-ending wave of bad guy cannon fodder to finish a journey that started two movies ago when someone shot his dog.
Chapter 3 picks up in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s previous film, which left unretired hit man John Wick (a stringy-haired, black-suited Reeves) on the run after breaking a cardinal rule of the New York underworld: killing another assassin at the “consecrated” Continental Hotel.
The audience is dropped into the action immediately, chasing Wick through a dingy New York rainstorm as he scrambles to find a way out of his predicament. A sequence of battles in a library, an armory and a horse stable sets the tone early: “Parabellum” is going to be dark, and it’s going to be violent.
Eventually, Wick makes it to criminal kingpin/ballet lover the Director (Anjelica Huston), who grants him passage out of the country. His goal? Make it to Morocco, where the Elder of the High Table will give him a chance to make amends, and maybe grant Wick the retirement he was enjoying before a dog hit started all the trouble.
In the meantime, a central dispatch full of hipster operatives slap a $15 million bounty on Wick, and the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) from the High Table arrives to deal with the associates who were brazen enough to give our antihero a hand along the way. Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) and the pigeon-loving Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) are given a seven-day warning to step down or else.
While Wick hunts down the Elder — with the assistance of fellow assassin and dog lover Sofia (Halle Berry) — the Adjudicator hires Zero (Mark Dacascos) to go after Wick with his own team, setting up a dramatic confrontation that — presumably — will bring the conflict to a close, or at least set up a lot of fight scenes.
As with the previous films, the plot mostly serves to weave together a series of increasingly elaborate and outrageous battles that seek to turn big-screen movie violence into a kind of brutal art form. There’s an obvious martial arts influence and choreography to all the mayhem, but unlike the more refined movies of the “Crouching Tiger” sort, “Parabellum’s” dance of death is punctuated by bullets, a crunching soundtrack and nonstop carnage.
The weirdest thing of all is how the violence in “Parabellum” manages to feel both restrained and gratuitous at the same time. Reeves spends more than two hours dispatching hordes of attackers with guns, blades, and at one point, a carriage horse, but even while most of the faceless “bad guys” are eliminated with unemotional speed and ease, Stahelski consistently throws in various kill shots designed to get a maximum jolt out of the audience. While it helps that all the victims are “bad guys,” it doesn’t help that much.
The result is a film that is well-executed (sorry, pun intended), but that I feel uneasy enjoying or recommending. It’s really not enough to say that “Parabellum” isn’t for the squeamish; it was designed to be a symphonic masterpiece of action violence that would put many lesser action movie franchises to shame (though without giving too much away, the ending kind of stinks).
The film looks like a gorgeous, bizarre crossover of a Rembrandt painting with the set from “Blade Runner.” It’s also a perfect match for Reeves’ wearied, stoic delivery and, for all the violent content, there’s an inherent cheekiness to it all that suggests Stahelski is well aware of how ludicrous the whole operation appears.
Still, audiences who haven’t seen chapters 1 and 2 should be warned, for many reasons. “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” is very good at its particular, gratuitous type of violence, but whether that's something you want is truly something to ponder.
Rating explained: “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” draws a hard R-rating for a Costco-sized dose of brutal action violence, though strangely it only drops the F-bomb a handful of times.