There is a poetic coda to ‘John Wick Chapter 2’; which sets the thrilling agenda for the third entry in what must be, pound for pound, the pinnacle of action cinema. Our hero, the perpetually zen merchant of death John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has just been made aware he has an hour until an open contract is put on his head and all the worlds assassins are on his trail. His response: “tell them, tell them all. Whoever comes, whoever it is, I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them all”. This feels like a line from the most violent children’s book ever written. But it’s an iambic declaration of violence from a man set to make his last stand.
The cliff hanger heading into ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ isn’t just an invitation for an insane body count; it furthers the series’ discourse on the blurred lines between savagery and civility; order and chaos. Buried beneath the balletic action and visual wit from director Chad Stahelski is a story about an assassin underworld that prides itself on rules that keep us from the threshold of barbarity – something Ian McShane’s debonair Winston reminds us of time and time again. The rules do work but not well enough to overcome the basic primal human traits.
The first John Wick introduces us to the rules that prop up the apparent illusion of order Stahelski and his writers seek to tear down. Wick hints at his barreling towards the primal in a sequence that has him retort “do I look civilized to you” to what is essentially a plea for cool heads to prevail. It’s understandable. He is mourning his wife and the death of the puppy she left him. ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ is the fulfillment of the eternal adage: rules are meant to be broken. Wick takes a life on hallowed ground; the New York-based Continental Hotel, and now finds himself excommunicated from the apparent assassins’ creed he so devoutly followed.
Make no mistake, the assassin underworld that is enveloped by the thrilling action that has defined the next era action filmmaking is a religion and one which is yet to witness the sacrifice that ushers in an era of grace. It’s old testament. To err means payment in blood. It stands to reason Wick knows this world is a toxic gyre of violence which is why he fought so hard to get out. But he never lost his faith given the number of bodies he dropped over a puppy.
Ironically, the only reason we have a film is that Winston, a devout custodian of the faith breaks the rules with the one-hour head start before the $14 million bounty is put on Wick’s head. The holy text demanded Wick be killed the moment he shed blood on the Continental Hotel grounds.
There are times we need reminding that ‘John Wick’ and ‘Parabellum’ are about a week apart. Wick is broken and battered races against time to get his affairs and body in order before fingers are on triggers and blades unsheathed. Not a soul in the underworld is to give aid to Wick once the contract is in effect lest they incur the wrath of the governing High Table. But our man has a plan, once again reaching into his past for two totems that will win him favour with his childhood guardian (Anjelica Huston) and old friend Sofia (Halle Berry), who now runs the Morocco branch of the Continental. The long and short of the plot is Wick plans to find the head of the High Table to plead his case and ask for a chance to make amends for his sins.
Others are guilty of major transgressions too; Winston for one. Then there’s also the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who helped Wick eliminate a member of the High Table in ‘Chapter 2’. A reckoning is coming their way, in the person of a High Table attaché known as The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon). She ropes in Zero (Mark Dacascos) and his team of deadly ninja assassins to do her dirty work. In service of order, chaos and blood will reign supreme on the streets of New York.
As expected, Stahelski ups the ante with the action granting Wick the opportunity to execute kills with an array of weapons from knives to axes to swords and of course “guns, lots of guns”. But the guns, I feel are on the back burner in terms of pure enjoyment, even considering the exhilarating sequence in Morocco where Berry and her vicious hounds steal the show in insanely conceived sequences. The gunplay even gets a little laboured, as evidenced by a small video-gamey twist in the penultimate action sequence.
Action-wise, it’s the added layer of awareness with the handling of the martial arts that really had me giddy. The martial arts quietly becomes a clash of styles as we headed towards the showdown between Zero, his acolytes and Wick. Dacascos cuts the more appealing action star with his more kinetic style marked acrobatic hand and leg combos. Wick, on the other hand, has always been close quarters grappler with his sambo-judo style and Stahleski gives his fight sequences so much room to breathe; with the wide slow-paced action sequence enforcing a deliberately tedious feel.
Stahleski is constructing a problem for himself here and it pays off in a brilliant and surprisingly warm fight between Wick and two eye-catching guests from ‘The Raid’ franchise (Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian), which ultimately serves to transcend the film. I will spare the details but this sequence felt to me like a tribute to Jackie Chan in the way it employed humor, had a hero ready for self-deprecating action beats, turns is star into a magnet for punishment and shies away from the ultra-violence that the franchise has otherwise walked hand in hand with. An all-timer for me.
Beyond the action, the screenplay infuses an array of wonderful elements given life by the pristine production design and cinematography. The world building is still fed to us in sumptuous bits (building anticipation for The Continental series). The time spent with Anjelica Huston’s character in her (wink wink) ballet school is the most rewarding and borderline mind-blowing with the layers it adds to one of the most iconic action cinema characters.
After what I felt was a superior filmmaking feat in ‘Chapter 2’, of which he sets the tone with that beautiful nod to stunts in silent cinema, Stahelski seems to double down on the exploitation elements revving up that European B movie aesthetic that still manages to carefully cradle the inspired iconography and a stylishly executed action romp driven forward by a lean smart narrative.
Keanu Reeves is stoic and as poetically terse as ever though he lets loose his visibly overgrown hair in a performance that isn’t pushing for the levels of catharsis seen previously. Wick lacks a sustained emotional spark here, which could count as a negative but makes sense given he is fully in survival mode. The compelling moments of emotion belong to Berry, who is the latest marker for the painful price one pays for belonging to this creed.
‘Chapter 2’ may be the best of the three films, the Bruce Lee of the franchise, but ‘Parabellum’ is undoubtedly my favorite; much like the way, Jackie Chan is a more endearing screen presence than Bruce Lee. ‘Parabellum’ goes somewhat meta in what was actually the logical next step if the franchise wanted to offer something new to audiences. It’s an assault on every cinematic nerve ending and outright porn for action heads whilst also demonstrating clever touches reminds us why we’ve always loved action cinema.