The puppy started it all.
The puppy was the launching point for the "John Wick" movies to come out of nowhere and become one of the best action-thriller franchises of this decade.
Not to minimize the stylish, creative, imaginative directing flair by Chad Stahelski and the classic deadpan performance by Keanu Reeves in the title role, but when that idiot thug murdered grieving widower John Wick's pup in the first film back in 2014, that's what provided John with a raison d'etre, and that's what placed us firmly in John's corner, actively rooting for him to exact his revenge.
And the hits just keep on coming.
In "John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum," the story of the executed beagle pup has become part of John's legend and is referenced more than once.
As we saw at the end of "John Wick 2," our antihero now has a new canine companion (an adorable and loyal rescue pit bull), but the dogs that really have their day in "Chapter 3" are the Malinois sidekicks to Halle Berry's Sofia.
The third installment of the ultraviolent, operatic, blood-soaked and wonderfully askew "John Wick" franchise is the most outlandish, the most ambitious and maybe the most entertaining chapter to date.
This is basically a series of impressively staged, increasingly elaborate, over-the-top, wink-at-the-audience fight sequences — interspersed with ludicrous, B-movie exposition scenes in which the A-list cast members manage to keep straight faces while exchanging various coins and medallions with various meanings, and speaking in Shakespearean tones about the intricate set of rules involving a union of international assassins and its board of directors, known as the High Table, and don't even get me started about certain rogue elements that believe the true power is held by those working under the table.
Here's what you need to know if you're new to the game. In "John Wick 2," our man violated the rules of the Continental Hotel in New York City, which is kind of like a Soho House for assassins — a classy, upscale safe haven.
Membership revoked! John has been declared "Ex Communicado," meaning he has lost all privileges and protections within the secret, international society of assassins. There's a $14 million bounty on John's head, and any member who offers John assistance is subject to instant and injurious retribution.
Let the globe-trotting and the blood-spilling begin.
Thanks to director Stahelski (a martial arts expert who was Reeves' stunt double in the "Matrix" movies) and the great Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen ("The Shape of Water," "Crimson Peak"), this is one of the most visually arresting films of the year, from the shifting color palettes to the ingenious use of mirrors and reflective glass, to the mournful and beautiful and nearly constant rainfall straight out of "Blade Runner."
And what a supporting cast!
Anjelica Huston is magisterial as The Director, a ballet instructor (among other things) who lends a hand to John even as she asks, "All of this for what, a puppy?" (His reply is priceless.)
Reeves' old "Matrix" running mate Laurence Fishburne is back as the Bowery King, who also realizes he'll be facing dire consequences for helping his old friend. Ian McShane and Lance Reddick return as the keepers of the Continental Hotel castle.
The ever-stunning Halle Berry kills it as Sofia, who runs the Casablanca branch of the Continental, owes John a debt of gratitude and is the owner of the aforementioned Malinois, who will do anything for her.
Asia Kate Dillon ("Billions") is perfectly cast as The Adjudicator, who enforces the rules of the High Table with robotic-like efficiency while looking Met Gala-level fashion-forward in boots and a dangling earring, and ever-present gloves — carried but never worn.
Mark Dacascos turns in scene-stealing work as Zero, who is a sushi chef, the leader of a ninja army and Wick's most formidable foe, but also one of his biggest fans. ("Pretty good fight!" exclaims Zero as he and John are slumped side by side, battered and bruised and broken.)
"Parabellum" is filled with dark humor and creatively gruesome action sequences, as when a team of assassins bounces John through one glass case after another, as if playing pinball with him, or when John gives a whole new meaning to "cracking open a good book," using a hardcover tome as a weapon of singular destruction, or when three killers all have to reload their weapons at the same time, with a hilarious conclusion.
This is the kind of escapist movie that encourages us to groan and cringe and laugh at the mayhem, and not to spend too much time noticing how John Wick is close to reaching that latter-sequel "Die Hard" John McClane level of resilience, somehow surviving stab wounds and gunshots and car crashes and multiple-story falls that would give Steve Rogers a run for his money.
It's a hard-R live-action cartoon, and it is superb, wall-to-wall action entertainment, and I'm already looking forward to "John Wick: Chapter 4 — This Time He Adopts a Cat."