Film Review – John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
One of the great accomplishments of the John Wick franchise is the world building. We have a time and place that looks similar to the one that we live in, but underneath the surface is a living, breathing world of assassins. It’s a place where rules are strictly enforced, currency is in the form of gold coins and trinkets, and debts are paid with bloodshed. Everyone walks around in fancy clothing, and they operate within buildings of opulent architecture. It’s a mix of old and new, where bounties are tracked on a chalkboard, like some illegal gambling racket from the prohibition era.
But the series is forward thinking in its action. Only a small handful of entries in the genre are as dedicated to the art of extreme violence. Throughout the John Wick story – up to and including John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) – there has been an emphasis on stylized gunplay and creative hand to hand combat. A round of applause should go to the stunt team, as well as director Chad Stahelski (himself a stuntman) who molded these high octane, brutal showdowns, as well as star Keanu Reeves, who – at fifty-four – pulls off much of the physical requirements himself. This is a crew that manages to make killing a person using a book hilarious and badass at the same time.
The plot picks up right after the events of John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), with our brooding protagonist on the run after breaking a cardinal sin: killing a fellow hitman on neutral ground. A bounty has been placed on his head, with everyone taking a turn trying to put him down. We open with an extended action sequence, as John fights off his pursuers using guns and throwing knives, as well as (of all things) riding on the back of a horse through New York City. It’s a breathless opening scene that also has moments for comedy. As John takes down each wave of attackers, we cut back to a secretary progressively upping his bounty on the chalkboard. While the rest of the narrative has its high points, no moment is as good as what we get in the first act.
One major theme that Stahelski (along with screenwriters Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams) develops this time around is the idea of consequence. Yes, in a movie with a Rambo-level body count, there are ramifications for the choices characters make. This comes in the form of The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), a kind of “Assassin IRS Agent,” who comes to audit all of those who have previously helped John Wick. She visits the Continental Hotel’s owner Winston (Ian McShane), whom she suspects provided assistance. She also visits the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and newcomer The Director (Angelica Huston) for their associations with John. She hires a charismatic agent (Mark Dacascos, good to see you!) and his team of stealthy underlings to do her dirty work. Needless to say, The Adjudicator is very thorough with her reviews.
In terms of action, Parabellum is the best entry of the series. It might actually be overstuffed with action. By the time John fights a crew of motorcycle riding, sword wielding killers, a sense of exhaustion starts to kick in. But when it comes to story and character, this is the weakest offering so far. The plot feels disjointed, almost episodic, going in a repetitive fashion where John survives getting beat to a pulp and then meets a friend for a short rest, only to jump right back into the cycle. A brief journey to Casablanca – where he joins forces with an old acquaintance (Halle Berry) and her pair of well-trained dogs – feels like it comes out of a different movie and has little bearing to the overall story.
The most worrisome aspect is John’s motivation. What made John Wick (2014) and its immediate sequel work so well was how he came out of retirement based on an emotional factor. He didn’t go back to the gun simply because someone killed his dog (which is justifiable enough, to be honest), but how that dog was representative of the wife he lost. As the story unfolds (there are hints that it will continue beyond Parabellum) that crucial element becomes less and less impactful. This latest installment is the first time John seems less like a fully dynamic character and more of a mindless killing machine. Hopefully, if Stahelski and the rest of the production continue forward, they maintain John’s character as the driving focus. A well-done action scene is good, but one that has emotional stakes is great.
But even with that concern, it’s hard to deny how much of a blast John Wick: Chapter 3 is on a purely kinetic level. It delivers entertainment with a high regard on action composition, living up to what advertisements have promised. I had a good time watching this. You want to know if John Wick is back? Yeah, I think he’s back.