Over the course of two deliriously blood-spattered revenge flicks, genre fans have gotten to know Keanu Reeves’s reluctantly unretired master assassin John Wick as “a man of focus.” The nattily attired, etiquette-conscious killer’s blindered approach to his work made the character an instant icon, capable of elevating the franchise to a coveted May spot on the Hollywood release calendar.
It’s a progressively nagging flaw, if not a fatal one, that in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” some focus goes by the wayside. Sure, the film’s quasi-religious, Latin-inflected title — “prepare for war,” indeed — is right on target. And once again, the elaborate action delivered by Reeves and Chad Stahelski, his onetime stunt double turned director, is thrilling in its deadpan, over-the-top depravity. But compared to a second installment that expanded the established Keanuscape in ways the “Matrix” sequels only wish they had, “Wick 3” fumbles for compelling, organically incorporated territory to explore.
The movie opens with Wick on the run in New York, left with nowhere to run thanks to the $14 million contract on his life. Well, not quite nowhere — he manages to buy himself some time at the library, a carriage-ride stable, and a ballet school run by Anjelica Huston’s Russkie gang matriarch. Rest assured, the guy can scrounge up props for plying his deadly trade pretty much anywhere.
Wick’s subsequent pilgrimage to Casablanca is a lesser encore to his sophomore assignment in Rome, as his confab with the mysterious Elder (read: kingpin) unintentionally plays like Oz’s reveal as the man behind the curtain. Halle Berry is interestingly cast as an old colleague from days in Morocco, but her no-nonsense lethality is an imperfect fit with Reeves’s winkless winking. (You’d guess Berry was lured by the pathos she gets to project, as the script essentially swaps in her character’s back story for Wick’s own narratively neglected, once-poignant heartache.)
Some of the film’s most engrossing bits are subplots involving Wick’s hotelier confidant Winston (Ian McShane) and his frenemy the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). It seems the underworld-ruling High Table meant business when they forbade aiding Wick, and they dispatch their Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon, “Orange Is the New Black”) to mete out punishment. Ideally, Dillon would come off less like some blasé record shop cashier, but it’s a diverting character nonetheless, and the Adjudicator’s recruitment of a martial-artsy sushi itamae (alternately menacing and goofy Mark “Iron Chef” Dacascos) is a late-game energy jolt.
Reeves and Dacascos’s brutal, climactic sparring session definitely leaves us wanting more, not to mention wondering about a potential Oscars sound editing category for shattering glass. But if the Wick series does write another chapter, hopefully it will be ready — not just for war, but for more dramatic pursuits, too.
JOHN WICK: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Directed by Chad Stahelski. Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams. Starring Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Halle Berry, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon. Boston theaters, suburbs. 130 min. R (pervasive strong violence, some language).Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.