Film review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
During the climax, Continental Hotel owner, Winston (Ian McShane) states, “Si vis pacem, para bellum,” perfectly encapsulating the John Wick franchise.
“Gravity defying, nerve shredding, eye widening, jaw dropping moments,” blasted through the speakers as Cineworld attempted to convince people to purchase their subscription-based discount card, but the advert perfectly describes the third chapter (pun intended) of this exuberant tale (loosely based on a true story). Resuming a mere few seconds after its predecessor (“John Wick: Chapter 2”), our titular protagonist (Keanu Reeves) has half an hour left before the international bounty, worth $14 million, is activated and contract killers across the world are after him.
The first instalment depicted a reluctant widow forced back into the world of contract killers he once dominated – earning the moniker “Baba Yaga” (Russian for “Boogeyman” apparently) – after naive Russian mobsters killed his (indescribably cute) dog – gifted to him by his wife. “John Wick: Chapter 2” continued the violent onslaught as John was forced, once again, back into the world of calculated killings to pay off a debt culminating in a devastating act that made his life even more unstable: killing someone on the consecrated grounds of the Continental Hotel. It became clear that Winston’s warning was now a reality: “You got out once... you dip so much as a pinky back into this pond, you may well find something reaches out and drags you back to its depths.”
“Chapter 3” begins in a dramatic state a few hours after the previous film, John is running through rain ridden neon Times Square attempting to utilise the time he has left wisely. The widow ‘of Focus, Commitment, and Sheer Will’ is now excommunicated and evading a bounty coming into effect within a few minutes as onlooking assassins, from a world parallel to the one full of unbeknownst everyday people who rub shoulders with what seems like every other person is a gun-for-hire, prepare to take advantage. The first 30 minutes – after sending his dog to safety... phew – are bound to make action fans internally bounce around with glee as it gifts audiences non-stop relentless fury.
Expanding even more in the already expansive world-building established in the previous instalment, Mr. Wick truly is Mr. International; showcasing even more of his bilingualism the massacring polyglot is most expressive through his fluency in multi-national martial arts whether it be Japanese judo or Gun-Fu or Indonesian Pencak Silat; whilst globetrotting he makes a stop in Casablanca, Morocco in search of guidance from ‘The Elder’, supposedly an omniscient figure that sits above the ‘High Table’. What unfolds is an introduction to, an annoyingly underused, Sofia (Halle Berry) and one of the greatest fight sequences in the history of Western cinema – pulled off by two 50-year olds demonstrating that action isn’t exclusively a young person’s genre.
Written by a cast of imaginative creatives, Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams the cast seamlessly complete the task of manifesting the script in conjunction with Dan Laustsen’s (“Shape of Water”) immersive cinematography. The unexpected franchise has been lauded for its fluid camerawork, framing fight sequences with wide, engulfing visuals instead of cross-cut, shaky-cam and close-ups. Whether it’s in tune with Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ (Winter) or paying homage to “The Villainess” (wonderful film; I highly recommend), the action scenes in the World of Wick continue to mesmerise. New additions, such as non-binary “Billions” star Asia Kate Dillon who plays designer drenched stern High Table adjudicator, serve as new layers, tying the Wickverse together.
For a man nearing his 60s, Keanu Reeves is basically portraying himself, both John and Reeves are persistent. It’s no easy feat making the role of an editor easier by going beyond your role as an actor and carrying out the stunt work yourself – which is “90%” of his presence on screen, according to Reeves. Training for several hours most of the week for 5 months, engaging in exhausting close-combat sequences, and crashing cars again and again and again and... you get the point. It’s undebatable Reeves has a repressed form of acting in these films, frequently uttering rather than speaking full sentences, you could argue his delivery lacks range and/or is bland, but it works so well in these films because what would usually cause a disconnection between the audience is instead maintained by his physical performance. I would even say that he’s bland delivery is utilised well to depict someone seeking revenge, his movement mirror his mindset: constant.
However, it stumbles; the action is increased, but at the expense of emotionality which anchored the first instalment; focused entirely on saving itself from the cliff-hanger it was left hanging off. The direction of the series may be off-putting for some given the disconnect, but I like that the films that followed haven't basked in the initial depressive environment that lead John to march his way back into the life he left... one headshot at a time, instead, focusing on the consequences of his devastating action. But still, for the emotion-seekers, he faces somewhat of an existential crisis in this one too. Additionally, the film suffers from unnecessary, albeit sublime, exposition causing the film to lag. What was a standout during the first film the original score is not that notable here; the score by Tyler Bates and Joel L. Richard – who also did the first two films - was essential in conveying the inner turmoil of a deadly but broken man through their temperamental songs. The world-building has its faults too, the journey to Casablanca was ultimately underwhelming and the brief, but insightful, introduction to matriarch The Director (Anjelica Huston), a key figure of John’s past, at the “Tarkovsky Theater” (United Palace), is wasted.
Ultimately, nobody is consistently showcasing action like (Chad Stahelski, David Leitch & co.) this: a balletic performance of sublimely choreographed violence, an envying display of athleticism, all supplemented by engrossing camerawork and sound. And like ballet, the performance is the focus rather than the subject. “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” succeeds at what it sets out to achieve, and thus critiques of plot and evolution of characters are invalidated by its very nature. Undoubtedly, the direction of the films in this series will remain niche phenomenon’s and highly respected, unconcerned with tackling thematic equations of morality or attempting to replicate their counterparts. But I wonder if we have reached the pinnacle of kinetic filmmaking; has the formula it’s – focused entirely on showcasing the relationship between daring stunt choreography and grandiose set pieces – established for itself restricting growth?