Dir: Chad Stahelski. Starring: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Halle Berry. 15 cert, 131 mins
John Wick 3 is the most bookish of the action adventures featuring Keanu Reeves as the hitman. Early on, there is even a scene set in a library. In John Wick’s hands, though, books aren’t for reading. They take on altogether more lethal properties. Reeves plays the assassin in a way that seems self-consciously modelled on Clint Eastwood’s man with no name in the Sergio Leone westerns. He doesn’t say much. Nor does he give in to pain and only very rarely will he betray his emotions. It’s a measure of his likeable screen persona that we still root for him, regardless of the bloody devastation he always leaves in his wake.
The twist in this film, which follows precisely where its predecessor left off, is that John Wick is the hunted, not the hunter. He has broken the rules by resorting to violence within the hallowed grounds of the Continental, the strangely old fashioned art deco hotel in the heart of New York City where the world’s most hardbitten criminals come to relax between assignments. Winston (Ian McShane), the very debonair owner of the establishment, is close friends with Wick and allows him a short period of time before he becomes “excommunicado”. The moment that happens, “no help, no services of any kind” can be provided for him and any other assassin can kill him and potentially pick up the $14m bounty on his head.
The body count here is astronomical. Killing follows killing. The action scenes are so stylised that the violence never seems remotely real. At times, as John Wick uses the hind legs of a horse to kick an enemy in the head or hurtles out of high buildings, the film resembles nothing so much as a very dark live-action version of Tom and Jerry. The sound editing is amplified to a ludicrous extent. Every time somebody is punched, we hear a thunderous thwack. Many of the best scenes take place on the rainswept streets of night-time New York where there is permanent gridlock on the roads and where there will always be a convenient alleyway that Wick can dash down.
John Wick 3 is undeniably stylish. Director Chad Stahelski, a former stunt coordinator, is clearly determined to trump the already very extravagant and ingenious set pieces that filled the first two films in the series. Wick is equally happy using antique pistols, old books, swords or machine guns as murder weapons. He is adept at martial arts.
An overcooked screenplay tries fleetingly to explain just where John Wick comes from. He may seem a quintessentially American figure but we learn that he is “a child of the Belarus”. His old protector, played with wonderful arrogance and hauteur by Anjelica Huston, runs the Tarkovsky Theatre. Whether she is training young psychopaths how best to slaughter their enemies or putting youthful ballet dancers through their paces, she is a ruthless taskmaster.
Alongside the references to Wick’s childhood, there are bizarre scenes set in Morocco and in the African desert, through which Wick walks in search of spiritual enlightenment, looking like a cross between Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
Attempts to sketch in Wick’s family history or to explore his emotional side are little more than an afterthought. The filmmakers rarely dwell on them too long. All they really care about is the action.
One of the quirks about the John Wick series is that extreme violence against human beings is commonplace but the moment anybody does anything nasty to a dog, characters express extreme shock and outrage. In the first John Wick film, the hero went on his vengeful rampage primarily because his beloved puppy was killed. Here, it’s not just Wick who dotes on dogs. His fellow assassin Sofia (Halle Berry) shares his canine passions. If someone has the temerity to hurt one of her beloved mutts, we know that the consequences will be too awful to contemplate. Exhausted, out-numbered and in pain, Wick himself goes to extreme lengths to ensure that his dog is protected from the fury descending on him
Parts of the story are confusing and don’t make much sense. Major characters will seem to die but will then mysteriously re-appear. It’s never fully explained why professional killers need their own referee, in the form of the stern and bossy Martin Atkinson-like “adjudicator” (Asia Kate Dillon) from the “high table” to make sure they stick by the rules. The explosive finale here bears a suspiciously close resemblance to the ending of last year’s Jodie Foster vehicle, Hotel Artemis, in which a hotel full of gangsters and low-lifes also came under siege.
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At times, the action is so relentless it risks becoming monotonous. As you wait for Wick to dispatch with his latest batch of enemies, your mind may wander. You begin to cherish those occasional moments when people stand still and actually talk with one another. You cling to the scenes in which the screenplay introduces plot elements which involve more than Reeves killing yet more of his antagonists. McShane is a welcome presence just because he is the single character here who never gets drawn into the violence.
John Wick 3 is a one-note film. So was John Wick 2 – and so was John Wick itself. There is no nuance or meaningful characterisation here, just unremitting action. The formula clearly works. Further sequels are inevitable. The real question now is whether the series will ever reach an endgame or whether it will go on and on.
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