As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. You’ve been warned.
Usually, when a flick is comprised of almost nothing but action scenes, it’s considered a problem – not much in the way of story to speak of, not much in the way of dramatic stakes or character development. Those are usually the signs of a bad movie. But for some reason, the John Wick franchise makes it work – mostly because the action is so jaw-droppingly outstanding and the world in which it all happens is so stylishly unique.
So Parabellum picks up right where Chapter 2 left off – our reluctant hero and deadliest of all assassins John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is on the run in New York after having committed a major boo-boo against the larger assassin society’s rules by killing a man inside the safe haven of The Continental Hotel. The hotel manager and one of John’s only friends, Winston (Ian McShane) does his duty by reporting John as ‘excommunicado’ – but gives him an hour’s head start.
During his hour of running, it seems like pretty much everybody on the street is another assassin looking to score the huge $14 million bounty on John’s head. He tries to catch a cab to the public library but of course, traffic is gridlocked. So instead he asks the driver to take his dog to the Continental and make sure he’s turned over to the Concierge, Charon (Lance Reddick). The cab driver agrees, knowing exactly who John is and what’s going on (because of course he does), and then John’s back on foot hoofing it to the library.
Meanwhile, the fashionably tattooed and pierced administrative workers at the society’s main office are busy typing and stamping and switchboarding and passing papers back and forth while an Operator (Margaret Daly) counts down the dwindling hour until John’s time is up. John gets to the library and finds a particular book that’s of course not really a book but a receptacle for some valuables – all of which look to be antiques, except for a photograph of John and his late wife. But John doesn’t even get a chance to think about his wife for very long because an extremely tall assassin named Ernest (Philadelphia 76’ers Boban Marjanovic) doesn’t care about honoring the time John has left. So begins the first awesome fight of many, where John ends up killing the guy with the book and then putting it back on the shelf.
But he’s sustained a stab wound that requires immediate attention, so he hauls it over to the Doctor (Randall Duk Kim), who only manages to get the wound half-stitched up before John’s time runs out – at which point, all of the society’s services are off-limits. John has to finish stitching himself up (because self-surgery is always an essential scene) and then ends up having to shoot the Doctor (not fatally) just so the poor guy won’t get in trouble with the society’s lethal governing body, the High Table.
So now John’s hour is up, which means basically everybody in the city is out to kill him. After a few spectacular fights – one in a antique weapons warehouse, one in a stable (yeah, a stable, where John uses the horses to kick guys in the face), and another on motorcycles while John’s on horseback – John then manages to get to his next stop, the decidedly Russian lair of The Director (Anjelica Huston). She’s a harsh trainer of ballerinas and wrestlers (I half-expected to see Black Widow in there somewhere) and a member of the High Table. She reluctantly agrees to see John, who produces an antique rosary as a ‘ticket’ for safe passage out of the country. The Director doesn’t believe she has to honor it because of all the trouble he’s caused, but John begs her, revealing himself as a former student of hers. She finally gives in and tears his ‘ticket’ by giving him a brand on the back. Ouch. But he’s got his free ride to Casablanca.
While all this is going on, the High Table’s sent its own representative, known only as The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to hassle everybody who’s helped John Wick – starting with Winston at the Continental. The two square off verbally, during which the Adjudicator informs him that he has 7 days to get his affairs in order. He’s out as the Continental’s manager. The Adjudicator then goes to see the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and gives him the same warning.
Meanwhile, John arrives in Morocco and gets into another fight with knives this time – but it’s cut short when a guy shows up and tells the assassins that John has special protection. The guy brings John to another former friend named Sofia (Halle Berry), manager of the Moroccan Continental, who has a bad attitude and two Belgian Malinois dogs ready to attack him. John pulls the same thing with her that he did with the Director, producing a marker with her blood on it – meaning she owes him a favor. Like the Director, Sofia’s not real keen on honoring the marker, saying that her daughter’s safety is on the line if she goes against the High Table. John (who apparently rescued her daughter and hid her away) is willing to tell her where she is, but Sofia says no, it’s best if she doesn’t know.
She reluctantly agrees to take John to see her boss, Berrada (Jerome Flynn), where John begs to see the High Table’s Elder. Berrada says John has to go wandering the desert until he pretty much dies before the Elder will agree to see him – or not. After divulging that lovely little bit of not-very-helpful information, Berrada demands a gift of tribute from Sofia – one of her dogs. She refuses, so Berrada shoots one of the dogs instead – and well, we all know what happens to people who hurt dogs in the John Wick movies.
The biggest fight scene in the whole flick ensues then, as Sofia goes nuts and has her other dog attack Berrada (by going right for the guy’s crotch – yikes) – and then it’s basically John, Sofia and the two dogs (luckily they were both wearing body armor) against a gazillion bad guys as they fight their way out of the Continental. The choreography and ingenuity of this particular sequence is so impressive, especially how they were able to work the dogs into the melee. Needless to say, John, Sofia and the dogs get out and Sofia drives John out to the desert. John gives her back the marker, with his blood on it this time – and in return she leaves him with a little bit of backwashed water. Yum.
John does the only thing he can do and wanders until he passes out – at which point he’s picked up by a guy with a camel and brought to the tent of the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), who makes him a deal – either John can die right then and there, or have the bounty taken off his head by performing a service. John asks what service and the Elder tells him he’ll have to kill Winston. John agrees to do it, surprisingly, and even gives up his wedding ring (complete with the finger) as a show of his ‘fealty’ to the High Table.
But of course, we all know that John has no intention of killing Winston and just wants to get back to the Continental in New York. Which he does – but not before getting cornered in Grand Central Station by another gang of assassins, this one led by Zero (Mark Dacascos), specifically hired by the Adjudicator to stop John. John barely manages to get himself on Continental grounds before Zero can get to him, at which point both guys get invited to wait in the lounge. While John waits for Winston, John gets reunited with his dog for a few minutes and has an awkward conversation with Zero about what a huge fan he is.
In the meantime, the Adjudicator’s called in a ‘deconsecrated’ status on the Continental – meaning that all the assassin guests have to clear out and it’s now okay to ‘conduct business’ on hotel grounds. John goes to see Winston in this crazy part of the hotel that’s all glass and lights and doesn’t really serve any other purpose except to be a cool future place to fight. John and Winston decide they’re not about to let the High Table take the Continental away from Winston, and they’ll fight. So what do we need? “Guns. Lots of guns.”
Cue lots of guns, kept in a well-appointed bunker in the Continental’s basement. While John and Charon load up, Winston kicks back with a brandy and John’s dog. This time the High Table sends in busloads – yeah, that’s right, 2 full busloads – of guys in bulletproof armor to take John out. And I believe in the ensuing fight more guys get shot in the head than in any other movie ever made (but don’t quote me on that). John and Charon even have to return to the bunker to load up on shotguns with armor-piercing rounds in order to continue the fight. John then ends up back in the glass-and-lights set in order to square off against all of Zero’s guys and then Zero himself, who still wants to be BFF’s with John even after he keels over dead, skewered with his own sword.
It’s sunrise by the time the smoke’s cleared, and once again, John is victorious. The frustrated Adjudicator suggests a rooftop parlay, where she and Winston strike a deal – turns out, Winston used John in order to maintain his position, and is only too happy to let him die. Winston shoots John, sending him falling off the roof and hitting every possible thing he can hit on the way down to the ground.
So it would seem that Winston and the High Table have won – or have they? The Adjudicator makes a wise choice to check the alley on the way out and notices that John’s body is gone. Winston assures her they’ll take care of him, but she’s not so convinced. Turns out John’s (amazingly) not dead and been picked up by a homeless guy, who takes him to the new lair of the Bowery King – who survived his ‘seven cuts’ punishment by the Adjudicator and Zero. So they’re both survivors of the High Table, both cast aside and left for dead. The Bowery King says he’s pretty pissed off about it – what about John? He pissed off too? And John just replies with his typical minimalist, “yeah.” Cut. End of Chapter 3.
So I think it’s safe to assume that Chapter 4 will be the real war against the High Table – which I’m sure will have even more incredible fights in even more unusual places with even more unusual props. Which is awesome and so far, has been enough to sustain the John Wick franchise. However, as I was watching this one, I was very aware of just how desensitizing the massive amount of violence was – and Chapter 3 is way, way more violent than the first two. So I really don’t think that doubling down on an already ridiculous amount of bloodshed is going to be the way this franchise stays afloat. If John Wick 4 is going to succeed, they really need to invest as much time and energy into the storytelling and the characters as they do into the stunts. Otherwise, I can already say that even though Parabellum was a lot of fun, I’m not going to be that interested in seeing a fourth installment that’s just going to be more of the same.
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Written by: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams
Release Date: May 17, 2019
Run Time: 2 hr 10 min