If you think that releasing the feel-good flick A Dog's Journey the same week as John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum is "counterprogramming," you are so wrong. Granted, one is rated PG (as in "suitable for all dog-loving kids"), and the other is rated hard R (as in "expect to see an eyeball stabbed close up"). But you couldn't find a bigger emblem of fuzzy-wuzzy dog love than John Wick (Keanu Reeves).
In the first film to bear his name, the quasi-superhuman hitman left retirement and went on a rampage because some thugs killed his puppy. In Chapter 2, he got a new dog. In Chapter 3, which opens with (almost literally) every assassin in the world gunning for Wick, our hero lovingly puts his pit bull in a cab and sends it to safety before the killing begins.
Later in the movie, Wick meets Sofia (Halle Berry), a fellow killing machine whose two beloved Belgian Malinois fight right alongside her, clad in Kevlar. Be they warriors or nonparticipants, the dogs are the affective center of this war, the main reason tough guys or gals pause to show feelings (though Wick does gaze sadly once or twice at a photo of his dead wife). Even Wick's most fearsome opponent (Mark Dacascos) has a furry friend — though he, naturally, is a cat person.
It's absurd, but so is everything about John Wick movies, and knowingly so. Director Chad Stahelski, who's been choreographing fight scenes since The Matrix series, does not pretend that his hitman epics are anything other than excuses to stage some of the most elaborate and inventive martial-arts battles ever seen on American screens. In Parabellum, the fights are concentrated in the first and third acts, and they are inventive both in settings (library, antique shop, stable, art installation) and in means (knives to the skull, horse kicks and dog bites to the groin).
In between, we get some plot and world building, the high point of which is Anjelica Huston intoning in a Russian accent, "Life is pain. Art is suffering." (She plays a mob boss who runs a ballet academy, a perfect pairing in this world.) At the end of the previous movie, Wick broke the hitman code by shedding blood at the sacrosanct Continental Hotel. Now he must atone to survive. Or is it time for him to rebel against the all-powerful hitman organization — represented by Asia Kate Dillon as a smug, prissy Adjudicator — that makes these silly rules in the first place?
Honestly, it's hard to say, because the overlong movie doesn't have much of an arc. It appears to be setting the table for a fourth film in which Wick will finally take on the "High Table" itself, as indicated by its uncharacteristically heavy-handed use of the Roman adage Si vis pacem, para bellum ("If you want peace, prepare for war").
Like some video games, the John Wick movies offer the audience the release and excitement of context-free violence — no dread, no animus, no real danger of hurting civilians. Wick's enemies rarely even feel like villains — with the exception, of course, of a guy who tries to hurt a dog. Him we want to see go down, and we're not disappointed.
In John Wick's alternate universe, everyone is a hitman or hitman-adjacent, everywhere is lit like the last act of an opera, everything operates according to byzantine rules, and life is indeed pain, except when you're hugging your dog. Maybe this is just how a feel-good film looks in 2019.