Aside from adding a sub-title – yes, it’s a type of gun but also Latin for ‘prepare for war’ – and upping the running time while slimming story elements, this is the John Wick formula as practiced and perfected over a trilogy that now seems likely to become a franchise. Keanu Reeves followed Liam Neeson in getting a mid-career boost by moving away from the kind of indie drama he’d been specialising in and rebooting his action cred as a taciturn, super-skilled, super-motivated human killing machine in a sharp suit. And stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski imported the style of outrageous physical action seen in Asian movies like Ong-Bak and The Raid to a sleek Hollywood thriller setting. Prime Wick screenwriter Derek Kolstad has even provided a sketched-in John Wick universe, built around international fraternities of assassins operating under ‘the High Table’, with safe haven/supply zones in luxury hotels and a set of arcane rules about who can kill who and where – which Wick violated in the last film, by murdering a villain no one feels the loss of on supposedly sacred ground.
As this opens, John Wick is staggering away through the streets of New York as his sometime patron Winston (Ian McShane) reluctantly renders him ‘excommunicado’, which means that there’s a huge payout open contract on him and even more people than usual want to kill him. For a good half an hour, it’s just about the fights and the stunts, which come at a breathless pace – early on, John kills a hulking Russian hit man with a library book then gets on a horse and duels motorbikes in the streets of New York. The route to yet more carnage involves more fighting styles than you can count and more deaths (mostly head shots) than you’d witness if you played a first-person shooter video game non-stop from the age of 15 to about 38. I’ve never been a fan of CGI gore splashes, but in this case it’s probably for the best since otherwise the entire stage blood industry would have collapsed meeting the order. Guest stars – Anjelica Huston, Halle Berry, Jerome Flynn, Said Taghmaoui, Laurence Fishburne – show up, and we do get something approaching a story beyond the fights as a representative of the High Table (Asia Kate Dillon with a Servelan cut and an evil monotone) turns up at the hotel to investigate and punish all those who might have helped the excommunicated renegade … while Wick heads off to Casablanca and the desert to a) slaughter about 5000 burnoose-sporting assassins, b) reunite with an old comrade (Berry) who owes him a favour and c) traipse out on the sands in search of the current Old Man of the Mountains (Taghmaoui) to plead for a way to make things right with the High Table … which, of course, involves doing something very, very wrong.
How he carries out (or doesn’t) this mission is the slingshot that’ll take us into Chapter Four, but in the meantime there’s an awesome bike chase and another massive fight (perhaps a few minutes too massive since attention wanders a bit in the climax) in a very breakable set that pits Reeves’ now-scratched, rumpled, digit-clipped, stabbed, bleeding, shot and vaguely annoyed Wick against the showstopping limber fu of a sushi chef (Mark Dacascos) with amazing fight moves. A one-time direct-to-video action superstar, best remembered for his supporting turn in The Brotherhood of the Wolf, Dacascos is among the best Western-based martial arts movie stars and gives Reeves a real workout. The look is comic book noir, with touches of elegance (a few snatches of classical music, lots of classy art direction, bratva-tattooed ballet dancers, old-fashioned tech from telephone exchanges to carrier pigeons) that are welcome amid 130 minutes of jaw-dropping (and -breaking) brutality. An offhand line of dialogue serves as a useful reminder that all of the action in all three John Wick films to date has taken place inside a fortnight.