There’s a lot I love about John Wick 3: Parabellum, beginning with the first scene. John Wick — played by Keanu Reeves, of course — kills a bad guy with a book. He just props it up on a table and places the base of the guy’s skull on it and fatally hobbles him, like American History X meets Misery. That’s only one of the creative, brutal stunts in the movie, which had me wondering if this is the best stunt choreography I’ve seen since vintage Jackie Chan.
And the world building! John Wick lives in a universe where the criminal underworld is organized under a strict corporate umbrella known as “The High Table,” which employs a team of no-nonsense, tattoo-covered switchboard operators dressed and styled like ’50s waiters and housewives, where the women look like strippers from Portland and the men like members of My Chemical Romance. They work in a place that looks like a cross between a stock exchange and a casino counting room, where the names of the “excommunicado,” those marked for death, like John Wick, are marked on a big chalkboard and called out like the day’s specials. Today, John Wick’s life is worth $14 million. Tick tock, John Wick.
Some of the gangs organized underneath the high table include a team of assassins dressed as homeless men led by Laurence Fishburne’s character, who also raises pigeons. “You see flying rats, I see… the internet,” he says at one point, which is funny to begin with, but extra funny when it’s Morpheus. There’s another, slightly less creatively realized gang of sushi chef/martial arts students led by Mark Dacascos — also known as The Chairman from Iron Chef America.
It’s all fun enough, mostly skating that line between cool and stupid. But discussing the world-building in John Wick is sort of like admiring the drapes in a porn movie. We come for the brutal killings; we stay for the brutal killings. And there are lots! There’s an entire fight scene incorporating Belgian Malinois, which seem to have been trained only to bite dicks. A fight scene incorporating vicious dick dogs was something I hadn’t seen in an action film before, and it was nice.
Unfortunately, John Wick 3 is also, and there’s no easy way to say this… two hours and 11 minutes long. This feels like a betrayal on the face of it, coming from a franchise that became popular because its entire plot of the original movie — which clocked in at a shade over an hour and a half — was “some bad guys kill Keanu’s dog, so he kills everyone.” That kind of simplicity plays. It’s why we know the name “John Wick.” And now, apparently, all the characters in John Wick 3 also know the name, John Wick. A fun game to play during John Wick 3 would be to drink every time someone says “John Wick.”
During one plate-glass shattering knife fight through a hall of mirrors (much of John Wick 3 looks like it takes place inside an upscale European mall, complete with blandly atmospheric electronic club music), two of Decascos’ sushi men knock John Wick down and have him temporarily defenseless, small finger knives poised about his throat. But rather than kill him, they pause to tell him what big fans they are and what a great honor it has been to fight him.
Really? Must every successful movie franchise be so drunk on its own cultural importance that we have to sit through 20 extra minutes of congratulatory back patting? Did we need to break the fourth wall to take a victory lap?
It’s a rare movie that needs to be 131 minutes long, but especially John Wick movies don’t need to be more than two hours long. Certainly not for the purpose of congratulating John Wick for being John Wick and resolving the corporate hierarchy of the high table.
The entire appeal of John Wick is that, like its protagonist, it’s terse (Keanu Reeves rarely says more than “…yeah” throughout the film). It moves decisively and with purpose. John Wick movies exist as an antidote to meandering arthouse anti-genre and bloated multiplex epics where a team of heroes have to open or close a portal. They killed his dog and now he’s going to kill them. Finally, a premise that doesn’t have to keep justifying its own appeal! Except now it does.
A 131-minute John Wick movie is like a five-minute punk song. It’s “more,” just not the kind of more anyone needs.