It’s in that escape that the pull of the franchise exists, wherein people want to see Keanu Reeves as a physical action star. He’s undeniably capable, but the character remains a cipher without a convincing rooting interest. The first, and most successful, John Wick put him on a quest for vengeance against a singular act of cruelty, but now, he’s clawing and knifing and shooting his way through the hordes of henchmen thrown at him because how else are we going to see that sweet action? There are obligatory mentions of living up to the memory of Wick’s dead wife, but that’s a character who’s never been seen alive onscreen and therefore we only have Reeves’ famous deadpan to convince the viewer of their fabled love. He has his talents, but evoking deeply felt emotion isn’t one of them.
If the mythology is borrowed from recognizable sources and the characters are going through the motions, all that’s left is the motions themselves. As directed by former stuntman Chad Stahelski, the action is this franchise’s calling card, as is a reverence for any demanding physical pursuit. John Wick 2 opened with an homage to silent-era stunts, and John Wick 3 lifts up ballet dancers as not dissimilar from the work that Stahelski and Reeves are doing. That work extends beyond the gun-kata of the first John Wick to more knife play and the incorporation of dogs and horses. The choreography around the animals is the film’s big innovation, but it operates at a noticeably slower register and breaks the film’s illusion. The overall effect is just as numbing as it was in John Wick 2, where one’s thirst for vicarious violence is quenched in minute eight and there’s another hundred or so to go. All the setpieces are mere way stations to the next thing that will also not impress.
Surrounding Wick on the film’s various battlefields are actors who are both known and unknown quantities in this genre. Stahelski demonstrates that he can make anyone into an action star by giving series newcomer Halle Berry and series mainstay Lance Reddick a chance to do some damage. The aforementioned inspector, portentously titled an Adjudicator, is played with bureaucratic imperiousness by Asia Kate Dillon. Laurence Fishburne continues his hammy performance as the Bowery King, and McShane’s dapper presence is always appreciated. The lead antagonist (in the sense that he’s a henchman for someone giving orders because this is an episode of TV and not a movie) is played by Mark Dacascos, incorporating a martial arts aesthetic that moves the series closer to its Hong Kong action roots. For action devotees, Dacascos’ henchmen are played by Raid veterans Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian. All three are honored fans of Wick’s work, and Stahelski doesn’t hide his own fandom for the two pencak silat masters. This meta gag only serves to demonstrate the franchise’s thinness, an equivalent of casting Triple H in Blade: Trinity because inquiring minds want to know what would happen if Wesley Snipes fought a wrestler.
Critics and fans generally love the John Wick franchise, but for all its flash and unearned pomp, I’m done. If I’m going to be drained and worn out after a film ends, I want it to be some kind of emotional exhaustion that meant something instead of being bludgeoned into submission by a film with a kill count in the hundreds. If the franchise is going to focus as a clearing house for action stars, a way to forge new ones, or resurrect past ones, then godspeed. Continue to string audiences along forever, or at least as long as Reeves wants to keep doing this, after which we’ll surely get entries into Wick’s past with an younger version of the character. I’ll just go to the source and watch Raid: Redemeption again. C-