Keanu Reeves brings soulful gravity to this consistently thrilling ballet of blood.
Dispatching killers with a fluid proficiency rarely seen in actors half his age. Reeves in John Wick Chapter 3. Source: Studio Canal.
It’s a mark of just how assured the consistently thrilling John Wick series is – this third installment in particular – that at one point mid-way through what feels like a river of blood in full flood, the film stops to ask a question so important many blockbusters don’t dare think it: why exactly is our hero putting himself through all this?
Way back at the start of the first John Wick, the answer was basically a joke. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) was a quiet man - until mobsters killed his dog. It turned out the dog was a gift from his dead wife and he was the deadliest man alive, so a whole lot of mobsters died. On the surface, it was almost a parody of vengeance movies; Reeves’ performance gave Wick’s loss a soulful gravity that made the over-the-top carnage that followed seem almost reasonable.
The second film focused more on building a world where every second person is a snappily dressed professional killer and a vast criminal hierarchy lurks behind all aspects of life. Wick was still killing a lot of people, but now he was doing it to stay alive; as this film opens he has an entire world of professional killers gleefully after the bounty on his head. Running would seem pointless but run he does. Gradually a plan – one that sees his destiny entangled with familiar acquaintances (Lawrence Fishburne, Ian McShane) and fresh faces (Halle Berry, Anjelica Huston) – comes into shape.
Reeves, who’s rarely been given his due as an actor, here radiates a weary sadness that somehow makes an everyman out of super-competent killer in a baroque world of arch-criminals. The fantasy he embodies here is being world-famously good at your job, though the reality that audiences connect with is being stuck in a job that you hate. Reeves sells both sides of the character with equal skill, then spins and twists and kills two dozen more bad guys with a fluid proficiency rarely seen in actors half his age.
At a time where many big franchises figure going big will hide how generic their action sequences really are, the Wick movies promise – and deliver – a combination of brutally intimate and smoothly choreographed violence (not for nothing is one of Wick’s teachers revealed to be a ballet instructor). The series is built around lengthy sequences involving Wick dispatching a series of nameless assassins by shooting them multiple times to put them down before shooting them in the head to make sure they stay dead. But within this formula, returning director Chad Stahelski (who was Reeves stunt double on the Matrix films) constantly finds new riffs to play.
One fight sees attack dogs added to the mix; another features opponents too heavily armed to be easily put down. An early fight using a startlingly large number of knives is a highlight, while later on swords become the weapon of choice. This installment sees western iconography thrown into the mix. Wick escapes at one point on a horse, he staggers across a desert, and he assembles an old revolver from parts of other guns in a nod to a scene from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
In a lesser series, why John Wick fights on would be irrelevant. People want to kill him, he doesn’t want to let them so ‘nuff said. But Reeves’ doesn’t play Wick as someone who enjoys fighting; later scenes where he’s increasingly up against killers who are also his biggest fans come off as a joke on the wearying price of fame. Midway through the film it’s revealed that Wick fights to live because it’s the only way he can keep his dead wife alive; without him to remember her, she’ll be truly gone. But the final developments show this series (and it’s now clearly a series, not a trilogy) knows love alone isn’t enough to keep him killing. If there’s another installment – and this is more than good enough to earn a return visit – John Wick will be out for blood.
Director: Chad Stahelski
USA, 2019, 2hr 11min
Distributor: Studio Canal
Rated: MA 15+