John Wick’s reputation has always preceded him. When the moody, retired assassin (played by Keanu Reeves) first emerged in the 2014 cult hit John Wick, a mob boss called him “Baba Yaga,” recalling, “I once saw him kill three men in a bar … with a pencil.” Back then, Wick was still a shadowy presence—a folk villain whispered about by petty criminals, the last thing you saw before you got whacked. By this year’s release of John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, our hero has gone mainstream. In the film, gangsters greet him with open arms and bottles of wine, and rivals compete for the multimillion-dollar bounty on his head. One fellow assassin confesses what a thrill it is to fight him, before charging at him with a sword.
That expression of fandom is a perfect reflection of how far the Wick movies have come in five years. The first one was a low-budget comeback for Reeves at the age of 50, a brutal action film that surprised audiences with its ornate world-building and surreal mood while also delighting viewers with elegantly choreographed shootouts. The second movie, subtitled Chapter 2, doubled down on the bizarre mythos of the Wick universe, where every other person on the street could be a highly trained assassin; each city had a special hotel called the Continental that served as a weapon-free safe zone; and everything was paid for using special golden coins.
Now, with Chapter 3, the saga has graduated to the status of summer-blockbuster franchise. The film has the even more baroque subtitle of Parabellum, the Latin phrase for “prepare for war.” Mr. Wick himself has progressed from folk figure to marquee idol, and Chapter 3 is told on a grand scale as a result. This worthy and fun sequel raises the narrative stakes of Wick’s journey, delves into the ridiculous lore that has come to define his world, and cooks up several new action set pieces to keep the viewer dazzled. At the same time, Parabellum is a clever meta-yarn about the burdens that come with superstardom.
In the first film, John Wick returned from retirement to exact vengeance on the Russian mob family who stole his car and killed his dog, which was the only remaining memento from his dearly departed wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). The second Wick saw him called back into the service of gangsters by an unscrupulous crime lord and ended with Wick shooting that crime lord on the grounds of the Continental, thus violating a sacred rule. In Chapter 3, the entire criminal underworld is after Wick, chasing him not just for a high bounty, but also for the notoriety that would come with being the person who killed the (supposedly) unkillable.
All three Wicks have been directed by Chad Stahelski (a stuntman who collaborated with Reeves on the Matrix films) and written by Derek Kolstad. The first two movies were heavily invested in setting up the feudal rules of a world of honorable assassins who hunt their prey in the city streets but respect the boundaries of their hallowed hotels. Parabellum is intent on questioning the foundations of this bizarre society, setting its leaders against Wick and suggesting that they, not he, are the real problem, and that perhaps the rules need to change. It’s an enjoyably anarchic pivot for a long-running series that still shows no sign of ending.
The main selling point for John Wick is its beautifully designed violence, and Parabellum outdoes itself in the first act, pitting a wounded, unarmed Wick against villain after villain. Wick fights someone in the New York Public Library with only a book to defend himself, is chased by motorcycles while on horseback, and has an especially bloody showdown with a group of killers in an antique-weapons store. Another sequence midway through the film follows Sofia (Halle Berry), an old pal of Wick’s, as she fights alongside two very well-trained dogs that attack on command; yet another sees Wick battling a heavily armored squad that can’t be stopped with his usual combo of dual handguns and deadly accuracy.
Stahelski and his stunt team excel at matching balletic movement with bone-crunching combat. Parabellum takes that approach to the next level by introducing a wise old dance teacher called the Director (Anjelica Huston), one of the many new faces Wick meets in his quest to clear his name. He also bumps into Berrada (Jerome Flynn), the minter of the magical gold coins; the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who enforces the rules of the Continental; and a mostly silent figure named the Tick Tock Man (Jason Mantzoukas), who tells people when their time is up. The film is almost hostile to new viewers, expecting cinemagoers to be charmed by all these new flourishes to Wick’s thriving sci-fi world. If you’ve been with the series through now, you’re virtually bound to be.
There were moments in Parabellum when I wondered how the series could continue topping itself. Digging deeper into the traditions of Wick’s world only yields more evidence of how absurd the whole enterprise is; maybe future movies can find creative ways to smash it all up and start over. If the sequels keep coming, the John Wick story may one day collapse on itself. For now, the series remains the most reliable purveyor of high-stakes, onscreen combat around, a franchise that hasn’t yet been tarnished by its ongoing success. That’s the best you can ask of Hollywood in the summertime.