John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Back in 2017, when discussing Chapter 2 of Chad Stahelski’s assassination-focused franchise, I posited how the second offering of John Wick’s adventures trumped the oft-terrible nature of action sequels by delivering a film that I described as a “B-Movie idea with A-Movie ambitions”, that it delivered on spectacularly. It took the world of John Wick and expanded it brilliantly, leaning into the inherent goofiness of a universe where everyone is either an assassin or aware that everyone else an assassin. And the action, oh the action.
Here we are again. I was definitely very excited for the third installment, clumsy title and all. Sure, there’s always the chance that things will get stale, yes at times the films have had a problem with pacing and, of course, Reeves isn’t getting any younger if he wants to keep playing an almost superhuman assassin. But Stahelski confounded my fears once two years ago, and I had confidence he was going to do it again.
Having been declared “excommunicado” by the secret assassin society of the High Table, legendary hit-man John Wick (Reeves) goes on the run. While a High Table Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) targets his one-time allies Winston (Ian McShane) and the Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne), Wick faces down legions of assassins, seeking to find a means out of his death sentence.
You can say this about the John Wick franchise, and it is higher praise than it appears: it knows what it is, and it knows what the audience wants, and it is not afraid to emphasise the first and to provide the latter in spades. In this film, John Wick beats a man to death with a tome of Russian fairy tales, engages in a blade throwing duel with a cadre of Japanese assassins, and then fights some motorcycle mounted gunmen, while he himself rides a horse, through the streets of New York City. And he does all of this within the first twenty or so minutes.
If that doesn’t suck you into the world of John Wick, I’m not really sure what else will. Those twenty minutes could be an award-winning short film all of their own, filled with neat moments, choreographed ingenuity and story-telling done without the need for any actual dialogue. Wick recovers mementos of his deceased wife hidden inside a book, then has to use that same thing as a weapon, underlining what will be the film’s central internal conflict for Wick. Stahelski directs a sequence where Wick methodically strips down a pair of antique pistols, mixes their components to fit a singular bullet and then uses it to shoot just one of the horde of assassins after him, showcasing the titular characters skill and patience. The throwing knives duel is a perfect blend of visceral action and physical comedy. And then you just have the sheer spectacle of the horse-based chase scene. It would be goofy as hell if the action wasn’t so violent and nasty (when I say Wick beats a man to death with a book, I mean he beats him to death with a book) and it all comes together amazingly.
The world of John Wick was cleverly parsed out in Chapter Two, and that process is continued here. Blood debts, ancient Eastern European traditions, assassin currency, elder statesmen of the High Table, consecrated ground and always another faction: once you get over that feel of a homebrew RPG campaign, and the fact that people have time to be sushi cooks and professional hit-men, it’s a fun world to relax into. There’s obviously a bit of a Game Of Thrones influence insofar as all of these competing factions come into play against each other, some of them in exotic North African locales, and Parabellum places an emphasis on the importance of “fealty” in the assassin business, both in terms of the authority of the High Table and in the relationships between fellow assassins. An excursion to Casablanca, wherein Wick hooks up for a time with former associate Sofia, played by Halle Berry, illustrated the point. For a cold-blooded business, everything in the John Wick world is based on degrees of trust and duty, even if those things are tested to extremes.
Is it too much to describe this as Reeves’ iconic performance? Wick may never fully beat out Neo in terms of movie-commentary impact or Detective Jack Traven for public consciousness, but damn if this hasn’t proved to be the perfect part for Reeves to play. He’s never been a great actor in the traditional sense, but he excels at physical emoting, of telling a story with his body, his pain and the lengths he is willing to go fulfill an objective. Parabellum may be the most sentimental of the three in terms of Wick’s stated goals, as he expresses a desire to live just so he can continue to remember his deceased wife, going so far as to kiss a picture of her early on, but it is limited enough that Reeves can work with it.
The character, and Reeves, don’t really need any more than that; you can feel Wick’s internal anguish as he makes difficult choices, or his quiet contentment when dealing with his dog, “Dog”. In fact, Parabellum makes a point of emphasising canine relationships to a degree that is almost self-parody, but which still just about works. Indeed, it stands well next to the commentary on the “currency” of relationships, with dogs being loyal just because that is what they are: in so doing, they become better creatures than their nominal owners.
Reeves is matched by a supporting cast that are all-in on what Stahelski is trying to do. There’s Fishburne of course, having a ball as the boisterous Bowery King, with McShane and Lance Reddick as the oh so civilised purveyors of the Continental Hotel, proper to a fault, until the guns come out. Berry is fiercely intense in her extended cameo, and Dillon’s cold, calculating Adjudicator steals most of the scenes that she is in. Anjelica Huston pops up as a figure from Wick’s past, and I really appreciated Mark Dacascos as Wick’s primary foe, a sort of deadly ninja turned fanboy, desperate for any kind of recognition from a man he idealises, even as he actively tries to kill him. The characters stand out without being total cartoons, as they often are in this genre.
But even if the narrative that Stahelski sets up is good, we are here for action as much as anything else. The director maintains that frantic, kinetic style that has come to be the trademark of the franchise. John Wick shoots so many people at close range, with accompanying blood spurts, that you might be worried that it is going to get dull, but somehow it never really does. Every thrown knife, every swipe of a katana, every gunshot, rapid reload and more gunshots comes across clean, crisp and expertly choreographed, by a director, cast and crew that are at the peak of their abilities. At times you feel like you are watching some kind of classic era musical, in the way that the principals all move perfectly around each other.
There is an eye for pacing here that improves upon what came before. The short sharp shock of the library fight, the more considered, but geographically restrained, knife fight, then a chase through a stables and out onto a blue tinged street, before John Wick takes a pause. Exposition, narrative set-up, and our next fight is the surrounds of Casablanca, an extended dog-friendly shoot-out where Stahelski’s understanding of space and movement comes to the fore. And then onto a swordfight chase and a suitably epic finale, wherein Reeves nods in the direction of the lobby shoot-out of The Matrix in an extended gun battle with armour clad goons, before single combat with a succession of literal ninjas, where the fighters are repeatedly being thrown through glass. Every sequence is that little bit (or a lot) different, and every sequence comes at the perfect time.
If I was to compare Parabellum to another film it might actually be Mad Max: Fury Road over a more obvious contender like The Raid (as an aside, Yayan Ruhian appears here in a fun henchman role). Like Fury Road, Parabellum’s sense of appropriate action pacing, whereby lengthy scenes of hand-to-hand or vehicle chasing are possible without draining the audience, marks it out as all-star for the genre. And a positive comparison with Fury Road can also be made for Parabellum’s ability to world build with simple plot elements, that accentuate the action as opposed to being the typical action-film shaky foundation. And it should go without saying that the film generally just looks gorgeous, an evocative and moody representation of a deadly underworld that carries that surprisingly thick veneer of high class civility, in every fancy surround and every cool blend of ghostly blue and polished brown.
I genuinely do think this is the best entry in this franchise, and might well be one of the greatest action films ever made. Its action is imaginative and visually engaging, showcasing a masterly understanding of what on-screen violence can be. It has expanded an interesting universe out even further. And its cast and crew are doing great work in roles that could have been throwaway in other hands. The John Wick machine has come to redefine what we expect from western-made action movies, and there may yet be more to come. I for one, do not expect anything less than another triumph if that occurs. Stahelski keeps upping the ante, and he keeps winning. I have watched, and I am willing to watch again. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Summit Entertainment).