The Screening Room | 'John Wick 3' delivers goods, stumbles at end

The Screening Room | 'John Wick 3' delivers goods, stumbles at end

In the classic Hollywood musicals starring Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, it wasn't uncommon for them to use props as they danced. In addition to their partners — which included Jerry the Mouse on one occasion — they utilized canes, chairs, hats and whatever other objects might be at hand, and would hoof it up on stage, the byways of New York City, a rainy urban street or even a revolving room. They generated excitement through the precision of movement, employing razor-sharp choreography to create a sense of wonder and delight in the audience.

In many ways, the "John Wick" films are like these musicals. They, too, are dependent on using elaborate choreography and precise movements to generate a sense of awe in the audience. The only difference is that the titular hero uses firearms as props and may do the tango with multiple adversarial partners or perhaps a pack of wild dogs. They are a wonder in that regard, and appreciating them as violent noir musicals is the only way I can justify watching and appreciating them. In the era of gun violence we live in, it's hard to endorse such violent endeavors.

And so it goes in "John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum," the supposed final act of the Keanu Reeves series. When last we left our hero, he had committed the cardinal sin of taking a life in the assassins' safe space, the New York Continental Hotel. The establishment's manager, Winston (Ian McShane), gave Wick a one-hour head start as a league of assassins will now be on his tail, hoping to collect the $14 million bounty that's been placed on his head for this infraction. Chaos and mayhem ensue.

Wick's flight forces him to look up old friends and call in debts he'd rather not collect. Dropping in on The Director (Angelica Huston), a mother figure from his past, proves enlightening, whereas looking up an old colleague, Sofia (Halle Berry) nearly grinds the proceedings to a halt as this subplot is superfluous and the actress gives a rather irritating one-note performance.

Along the way, Wick visits Casablanca, becomes lost in the Sahara Desert and winds up back in New York City to complete a task that will take the bounty off his head. In the process he is kicked, hit, shot, stabbed, run over, branded (twice), loses a finger, is thrown off a building and adds a belt and a book to his arsenal, both lethal weapons in his hands.

Of course, none of this is to be taken seriously, and for the first hour, director and ex-stuntman Chad Stahelski delivers one impressive set piece after another as Wick is put through his paces. Of note is a scene in which he dispatches six bad guys with very accurate and imaginative knife-throwing, and an all-too-brief moment where our hero finds himself on a galloping steed on the streets of New York with two motorcycles in pursuit.

The second hour lags badly, brought low by the Berry interlude and a needless subplot involving The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who metes out justice when any of the assassins fail to follow their society's rules. That the screenwriters decide to introduce a plot this late in the game is silly and upsets the tone of the movie.

The "Wick" films have been propelled by dark humor, killing guys real good and giving Reeves the opportunity to glower and self-consciously deliver his tough-guy dialogue. For the most part, that's what we get, but the repetitious and unimaginative final act suggests that Reeves should hang up his guns with this installment.

'John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum' (★★★ out of four)

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Angelica Houston, Laurence Fishburne, Robin Lord Taylor, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick and Jason Mantzoukas.Directed by Chad Stahelski; produced by Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee; screenplay by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams.

A Summit Entertainment release. 130 minutes. Rated R (pervasive violence and language) At the AMC Champaign 13, AMC Danville Village Mall 6, Harvest Moon Drive-in and Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

Shannon delights in revisionist 'Wild Nights with Emily' (★★★1/2 out of four). The past year has seen revisionist views of famous and infamous women from history grace the screen with mixed results.

Filmmaker Craig William Macneill's "Lizzie" cast ax murderer Lizzie Borden as a woman who acted out rashly against the repressive mores of society, represented by her parents, by hacking them into little pieces. While fueled by good intentions, its meandering structure robbed it of any impact it must have had. On the other hand, Garth Evans' "Mary Magdalene," based on revisionist doctrine issued by the Vatican, portrayed the Bible's woman of ill repute as one of Jesus' most faithful and vocal followers. While overlong, the poignant message it contains concerning religious devotion is ultimately quite powerful.

Perhaps the best of the bunch is Madeleine Olnek's "Wild Nights with Emily," an unabashedly odd yet passionate look at the life of reclusive poet Emily Dickinson — who, according to new scholarly evidence and Olnek's screenplay, wasn't the agoraphobic wallflower our literature teachers would have us believe. Portraying her as misunderstood, progressive and passionate, the film sees her as a woman eager to live a full life but stymied by the attitudes of narrow-minded men of her time.

The Belle of Amherst is far from this town's version of Boo Radley, as she's seen baking cookies for neighborhood kids — albeit distributing them via a basket from her window — and actively reaching out to editors in an effort to get her work published. The most image-altering act we witness is Dickinson passionately kissing her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler), with whom she supposedly had a lifelong affair right under the noses of their always-in-close-proximity family.

It's an odd turn of events, but Olnek has evidence that makes for a plausible argument that this arrangement was real. In recent years, it's been discovered, through the use of spectrographic technology, that many of the author's most passionate poems were addressed to Susan, but her name had been erased for fear their relationship would be discovered. That Dickinson wanted her poems burned after her death also suggests a desire to keep this correspondence under wraps.

While all this is very interesting, the most radical and entertaining thing about the movie is the casting of Molly Shannon as Dickinson. The "Saturday Night Live" alum brings her trademark quirkiness to the role, setting a tone for the film that is, to say the least, odd. At one moment, it's outlandishly quirky in a satirical way; the next, it's deadly serious, as she laments over not being able to find a publisher who appreciates her work.

Her casting and this approach is a daring decision that brings a new perspective to the story and couldn't be more different from 2016's "A Quiet Passion." Yet it also it keeps the viewer on their toes, unsure if the next moment will be highly comedic or dramatically dire.

In the end, Olnek succeeds in her ultimate goal of casting Dickinson and her story in a new light, seeing her as an unabashedly romantic woman, a trailblazer not simply with her words, but also with her acts, albeit as far as her society would let her be. With Shannon in the role, the message is made clear from the start that this is not the Emily Dickinson you once knew, but a figure contending with problems and frustration we all can relate to.

Ultimately, this film does the author's work justice, allowing us to know who her muse was and what her intentions were regarding her groundbreaking radical poems.

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