Directed by Chad Stahelski | Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams | 131 min | Netflix
John Wick is a hard man to kill. We’ve learned that from the two previous chapters in this ongoing uber-violent action tale. But John Wick isn’t someone who takes much pleasure in killing others. He does it like it’s an extension of a Protestant work ethic.
John Wick was out of this assassin’s life, retired, but he was drawn back due to the rules of the deadly world he lives in. He resisted this, but men needed killing. If we had any sympathy for John Wick’s unfortunate situation, for the fact his wife died and his dog was killed and his car was stolen, by now that’s gone. He’s back in this life because he wants to be, it’s his decision. He’s not so different from the people he kills, other than he’s much, much harder to kill. It doesn’t do much for building suspense.
That’s one of the problems with John Wick 3, which I’ll call it for the sake of brevity. There are others, and I’ll discuss those further down.
What works here is what’s worked in the past two movies—the pleasure of seeing a still-limber Keanu Reeves get the crap beat out of him, but somehow, and continually, overcome hoards of well-trained, skilled assassins. The many sequences of hand-to-hand combat are what this is all about, with two of my favourites coming early on: Wick fighting an enormous man in the New York Public Library with a book, and Wick killing a number of men with edged weapons in a hallway filled with knives of every variety. As a kung-fu action picture, the John Wick franchise—directed by former stuntman Stahelski—has established itself as the best choreography in Hollywood, while Reeves remains wonderfully indefatigable. There are plenty of moments where this material crosses over into full-on comedy or camp, but Reeves never winks at the camera. He’s as serious as a stroke.
But the narrative issues of John Wick 3 are many.
Having set up John Wick as the man who breaks the rules at the end of the last movie—he shot a guy on the premises of The Continental, the assassins hotel, a real no-no—this time the filmmakers make the rules themselves the villain. That’s a problem because the rules are what makes this world of assassins so interesting.
An adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon of Orange Is The New Black) arrives on the scene to enforce those rules. Hotel manager and John Wick’s friend, Winston (Ian McShane, coasting), gives John Wick an hour grace before the bell tolls and everyone tries to kill him. Except, isn’t that kind of what happened in the last movie? Yeah, that time it was only a $7 million bounty, and now it’s $14 mil, but it doesn’t seem like he’s in markedly worse circumstances than before.
John Wick goes looking for help from a mentor, Anjelica Huston, while Lance Reddick, Laurence Fishburne, Halle Berry, and her dogs provide some added assistance, Jerome Flynn less so.
It turns out in order for John Wick to survive, John Wick must promise to do something he doesn’t want to do. A little while later, he casually breaks that promise.
Granted, this wouldn’t be an American action movie if the hero wasn’t some kind of outlaw, but while breaking the rules is one thing, by breaking his word, John Wick is revealed to have no integrity, the plot no tension, and breaking the rules no consequence. Mark Dacascos shows up as a fun, unpredictable antagonist, but it never seems likely that John Wick will have any real trouble with him, and the video-game structure of all of this gets increasingly tiresome.
A late character betrayal makes no sense given what’s come before, and John Wick’s fate suggests his final conversion into an indestructible, rule-ignoring superman is complete. Too bad, because there’s fun to be had here when the internal logic of this universe works. The only lingering question left for this franchise is how they’ll keep doing it and keep anything about it fresh. Chapter 4 is as inevitable as John Wick shooting someone in the head.