John Wick Chapter 3 opens in a neon and apparently lawless New York City, with John on the run after a global contract has been put out for his life. Darkly aesthetic crime mobs and contract killers inhabit this crimson vision of Gotham, and a hotel, called the Continental, is a refuge where the shedding of blood in petty internecine squabbles is expressly forbidden. John ignores these rules in order to get revenge on a treacherous mafioso in Chapter 2, and as a result, is declared excommunicado by the High Table. In Chapter 3, John fights against this High Table directly, a foe different in essence than the mere men he sweatlessly vanquished in the previous two films. This Table touts itself as an iron institution, led by shadowy figures whose authority is supposedly transcendent and untouchable. John’s role as hero in this film is to show that even those who claim to be “more than men” have their brains rent apart by bullets just the same.
The vision is shot well and it is undoubtedly interesting. The High Table has a vaguely religious authority about it, and their reach is truly global, but totalizing menace is sacrificed for kitsch. In the first few minutes, the audience finds that the High Table communicates its contracts through a ludicrous office staffed by tattooed bimbos with lip piercings and accounting visors. John Wick kills anyone and everyone coming to collect, and it becomes clear after just a few scenes that all the assassins in the world are less of a threat than they were billed.
The first prolonged fight scene is the best; John takes on five or six Chinamen with knives and axes, and John’s life feels truly at stake. All the actors in this wonderfully choreographed scrap display real fatigue. By the end, the combatants are just throwing things at one another, and the deaths have weight, especially when one of the fighters is only killed after John Wick forces him to accept a knife into his eyeball. But the audience realizes far too soon that the High Table is a paper one, and any sense of threat or catharsis in victory is wiped away by John’s sheer unkillability.
The latter fight scenes are all over the place in terms of quality, ranging from overlong to ridiculous. Part of this is due to lackluster storytelling. Many of the characters that help John escape the High Table make their first appearance in this film, but the writers treat these interactions as bookends to action rather than necessary exposition. The audience gets a bit of backstory, and then John runs elsewhere to fight endless hordes of hapless henchmen who don’t seem to know how to use their weapons. There is a particularly ridiculous scene in Morocco (?) in which John, Halle Berry (??) and her two dogs, one of whom was shot to no effect in the previous scene (???), take on at least a hundred bumbling, turban-clad nobodies. This is to say nothing of the violence itself; each blood spurt or exploded brain at close quarters feels more tasteless than the last as the film slogs on. Are the actors talented? Yes. Does director Chad Stahelski know how to shoot a well-choreographed fight scene? Undoubtedly. Does he have an ounce of aesthetic or narrative discernment? No.
The members of the High Table are pompous, silly, and totally harmless aside from the Adjudicator, an androgynous woman with a buzzcut who is so unlikeable and lifeless that one can only pray for the actress’s soul. The Adjudicator comes to New York City to lead the search for Wick and apprehend those who helped him. She plays by strict rules and allows for no leeway, allotting draconian punishments and enforcing the rules of the High Table. In this character, one can see what Chapter 3 might have been: a topical allegory on the struggle for survival between men and the deterritorialized bureaucracies that rule them. Instead Stahelski delivers a slow, predictable climax, and despite all the religious iconography and the casting of Gen X’s premier Christ figure, this film never achieves greater than a portrayal of man vs. man, evil vs. evil.