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Review: 'John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum' delivers electric, exhausting thrills

The hitman returns for another installment of outrageous, nonstop fighting

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After animatedly sharing plot details from the new “Bill & Ted” movie, which comes out next summer, actor Keanu Reeves, appearing on the “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” was forced to get serious for a moment. The show’s host asked his guest after Reeves went on and on about saving the universe: “What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?” The actor leaned back and took a deep breath. Then, with philosophical panache, he said, “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.” The crowd went “aww,” then cheered.

The simple but profound statement, while apparently ringing true in Reeves’ experience, is turned more complex in his latest vehicle, the predictably terrific “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” a movie in which the title hitman must worm his way out of death when a $14 million contract is put on his head. The truth of the matter is that those who hate John Wick — mostly other assassins, all of whom are connected to a covert network known as the High Table — will also likely miss him after he’s gone. They’ll miss living in a world where Wick is the guy everyone’s trying to kill for a pretty penny, and they’ll miss clamoring to be the one to get their paws on him themselves.

If you’re planning on watching “Parabellum,” I assume you’re familiar with parts one and two. Both of those movies, while driven by some sort of storyline (in the first, Wick, long-retired, comes out of the shadows to avenge the death of his dog, who’s shot by a gangster; in the second, he’s made to settle an old score), are essentially two-hour orgies of violence where the stealthy Wick kills enough people to populate a couple of Midwestern hamlets.

Movie three is no different. The franchise might be little more than a collection of uber-bloody revenge pictures, but, in the tradition of features like “Kill Bill” and “The Raid: Redemption,” they’re made with such style and are so clearly supposed to be film-length showcases of the wonders of action choreography that it doesn’t matter if action scenes devour everything else. Director Chad Stahelski, who acted as Reeves’ stunt double for the “Matrix” series, brings such verve and originality to the series that the simulated bloodletting feels more like an art than a cheap spectacle.

I prefer 2017’s “John Wick: Chapter 2,” whose narrative is nuttier and which I think best captures the repetitive, almost cyclical joys of the trilogy. But “Parabellum,” which is mostly just Wick doing his best to not die for 131 minutes with the help of delightful franchise newcomers Halle Berry (as a fed-up old pal who also loves dogs) and Anjelica Huston (as the headmaster of an assassin school in which Wick was once enrolled), is still characteristically visceral, crackling with barely contained electricity. Nary an action movie of this decade not related to the fast or the furious is quite so marvelously choreographed or as lovingly photographed — the film looks like a cross between a severe crime comic and a colorful neo-noir, particularly taken with neon, slick pavement, smoke, and inky shadows. “Atomic Blonde” (2017), the 1980s-set espionage thriller starring a post-“Mad Max” Charlize Theron, comes close. But, then again, that film was also directed and produced by David Leitch, an alum of the “John Wick” saga.

“Parabellum” isn’t a traditionally “fun” action movie. Though the audience at the screening I attended collectively cackled spiritedly and often — almost licking their lips as throats were slit and femurs were snapped like pencils — I found myself getting a little depleted by the time the final act commenced. The violence, while stunningly planned and executed, is so unrelenting and intense that after a while I could almost hear my heart asking me if I could step outside a few minutes to get some air.

My experience reminded me of the one Roger Ebert described after watching “Aliens” for the first time 33 years ago: “It filled me with feelings of unease and disquiet and anxiety,” he wrote in his review. “I walked outside and I didn't want to talk to anyone. I was drained … Yet I have to be accurate about this movie: It is a superb example of filmmaking craft.”

“Parabellum” is lighter than “Aliens.” There are more jokes, and there’s even a little bit of camp, courtesy of the decadently clothed and mannered Huston character as well as a scene-stealing High Table authority played by a masterfully austere Asia Kate Dillon. But when the movie’s ending hinted at more to come, I questioned whether I had the energy to sit through another installment — a reaction that’s also, in itself, maybe a compliment, too.

Reach columnist Blake Peterson at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @blakewpeterson

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