The stone-cold killer in a bespoke bulletproof suit is back -- and if you thought John Wick was good with a pencil, you should see what he can do with a book of Russian folklore in the stacks of the New York Public Library.
The same goes for axes, guns, katanas, a lot of knives and even a few helpful horses as Keanu Reeves racks up the bad guy body count in "John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum." The latest installment of Lionsgate's R-rated franchise about an ex-hit man killing his way back to a clean slate picks up right where 2017's "John Wick 2" left off and mostly follows a relentless breakneck pace until the credits roll.
It stumbles only when the action slows down to send the antihero on a clumsy side quest in search of character motivation instead of another fight. He is the Boogeyman, the underworld's "Baba Yaga," a man of few words; expository dialogue isn't his strongest means of communication. That's what fists are for.
That said, John Wick could use a moment to catch his breath. Technically the reluctantly un-retired assassin is still a grieving widower who only lost his wife, Helen, something like a few weeks ago in movie time, as seen in the New Jersey-to-Brooklyn rampage of 2014's "John Wick." That film, by comparison, was a downright contained moral fable about a guy with a cool car avenging his puppy.
But there's no rest for the wicked, or for lucrative Hollywood franchises. Each "John Wick" movie has upped the ante, the destruction, and the texture of the secret society of killers who rule from the shadows with their sacrosanct laws of civility and engagement. So too has the sophistication of its action storytelling matured now that Wick has a deeper awareness of what he's really fighting for.
To rewind: Pulled out of retirement by the Russian mobsters who stole his car and killed his dog, legendary hit man Wick unleashed hell on the underworld from whence he came in the first film.
His past continued to haunt him in the lore-expanding "John Wick 2" as he crossed the High Table -- the governing guild of killuminati that enforce the rigid bylaws of contract killing -- and spilled blood on the sacred grounds of the Continental, a five-star hotel for killers. He was deemed "ex-communicado" and off-limits to those who might help him.
As "Parabellum" opens moments later, he's unleashed onto the streets of New York City, bloody and presumably very tired, with a $14-million bounty on his head and an hour's head start. In this heightened world, all of Wick's adversaries get a push notification alerting them of the news.
Wick smartly sends his new canine companion off to safety and very suddenly has to fend off wave upon wave of highly trained thugs. The nonstop flurry of beautifully crafted fight scenes that follows tests both the threshold of the human body to withstand stabby, slicing, bone-crunching violence and the threshold of the audience's ability to watch said violence.
Then again, watching Reeves outfight everyone on the planet -- always dressed to kill -- is precisely why these films exist.