Men, women, dogs and horses all prepare for war in John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum, a visually stunning splatterfest in which style doesn’t trump substance so much as pummel it to the ground.

All directed by Chad Stahelski and based on characters created by Derek Kolstad, the John Wick productions have successfully created a seriocomic fictional universe in which hierarchy and bureaucracy are as highly valued valued as killing skills. The first two films compensated for their slim plots with deadpan humour, stylised and elaborately choreographed fights using all manner of weaponry, and gorgeously shot and designed set pieces.

The trilogy maps a very long fortnight or so in the life of John Wick (Keanu Reeves), the deadliest assassin ever to have lived. A samurai-like executioner with a limited vocabulary and a limitless talent for survival, John Wick’s retirement plans are forever being thwarted. It all begins with the death of a puppy, gifted to him by his dear departed wife, and the vandalisation of his equally beloved car.

In the first movie from 2014, John emerges from self-imposed exile to extract deadly revenge on the men responsible for the damage caused to said puppy and car. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) fruitfully expands John’s world to reveal the multi-lingual and multi-racial sub-culture of assassins lurking in plain sight. These slayers repair for rest and recreation to various branches of the Continental hotel chain, and are informed about future assignments by a bunch of highly efficient and heavily tattooed telephone operators.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019).

In the second movie, John breaks the rule of the Continental in New York City, managed by the dapper Winston (Ian McShane), by killing a rival on the hotel premises. The latest film takes off seconds after the previous one ended: John is on the run, his new pet pitbull for company and a $14-million bounty on his head. Winston gives John an hour’s grace, which invites the attention of the High Table that keeps order in the assassin community. An Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) lands up in New York City to conduct an investigation while John seeks the help of his previous associates, The Director (Anjelica Huston), and Sofia (Halle Berry) and her two canines.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) and Sofia (Halle Berry) in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Courtesy Thunder Road Pictures/87Eleven Productions.

Although the tongue is as firmly in cheek as the finger is on the holster, Parabellum misses the momentum and wit of the previous films. John’s one-liners and one-worders don’t have the same zing any more. When two of his hunters take a moment to wonder whether the man is worthy of the myth, it doesn’t work as well as the sequence in John Wick (2014) in which the marked Russian gangster explains why John is known as the “Baba Yaga”, or the bogeyman.

The barking-mad violence, which reaches near abstraction in its level of detail, offsets the sketchy and convoluted writing. Among the standout scenes, which are filmed in long takes to make the action as credible as possible, are a spot of mayhem in the New York Public Library, a showdown in an antique store that involves glass-case smashing and swift knifing, and a bust-up in a shimmering hall of mirrors (a continuing tribute to Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai). The most inventive sequence begins in a stable and ends on the streets of New York City, and proves that for John Wick, four legs are better than hot wheels.

Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019). Courtesy Thunder Road Pictures/87Eleven Productions.