John Wick 3: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Chad Stahelski, 2019, English-Russian-Japanese-Italian
Well you know what you came for with ‘John Wick’ so it’s a little redundant to chip at flaws when it’s big dumb excess and entertainment. The IQ is low – someone will explain the title, don’t worry – but that doesn’t stop it from trying to open up the Wick-world. Franchises are everything these days. Quietly, ‘John Wick’ seems have snuck in and taken some of the glory from ‘The Raid’ (chalk that up to being non-English, but the people that matter seem to know: after ‘The Raid’, I saw fight scenes everywhere realised they had to up the ante, not least in the ‘Daredevil’ NetFlix series).
It starts with the murderous properties of library books, sets a fight in a museum of antique weapons and then delivers a little horse-fu (as Keanu has called it). So, for me, this first act is the strongest sequence of action scenes, funny and outrageous in its excess and excellently executed. This is where director Chad Stahleski’s experience as a stuntman and his history with Keanu Reeves (they go back to ‘The Matrix’) is a major asset: you never feel that the editing is doing all the hard work and every now and again there’s a camera angle that really lands the punchline (eye-piercing, anyone? But the whole antique weapon’s fight contains knowing angles).
It seems to be that different people have different preferences: some think the opening act is weakest, some the middle and some the end. It’s true that when the guns come out, there is less visible invention because the film is not required to be so imaginative in its arsenal. However, Halle Berry and her attack dogs have proven a high point for many (ref. social media).But then some seem to think ‘John Wick 2’ is better/inferior, so it seems a series more open to flexible audience’s preferences than most. It’s all fights, so maybe repetition fatigue sets in at different points for different people.
But to back-track: this takes off where the previous film finishes with Wick (Keanu Reeves) on the run with a humungous bounty on his head. This time, it’s not vengeance motivating him but simply going to one person and cameo to the next to get to the head honcho of the High Table, which controls this league of assassins. What this really does is take Wick from one fight to the next. It gets a little ‘Black Swan’ at one point and then cod-mystical (in the desert?), but it’s in obvious high debt to ‘The Villainess’, especially with that bike-and-horse fight. So, it’s derivative and undemanding and daft, yes, but it has a nice sheen and colour-scheme – filmed with a clear commercial gloss by Dan Laustsen – and the fights are exceptionally choreographed, filmed coherently without the edits getting in the way. And this is where it truly delivers.
And it helps that Reeves is more hangdog in demeanour (sad puppy, maybe?) undermining the potential machismo. It follows a trick from ‘The Raid’ in that he is a protagonist reacting in a Why-are-you-all-making-me-be-such-a-bad-ass? way, which allows him to be both persecuted and to show how lethal he is. A film about his being an assassin would have been very different. Still, he still applies so many headshots to make sure potential threats are dead – no one-shot kills all here – that the “15” rating seems ridiculous. Reeves has little dialogue and a couple of one-liners and he’s probably no one’s idea of an exemplary actor (but stories of how nice he is are as legendary as Wick’s kill list) but when he has to show his skill as a physical actor, he doesn’t disappoint in the action scenes. Fighting on a horse is pretty impressive. And when his dourness can’t quite keep things sparking, there’s Halle Berry and ‘The Raid’ guys and Mark Dacascos (an assassin barely able to repress his hero-worship) to keep the momentum up. But it should be noted that this is not a youth-dominated word: the cast is notably mature and happily showing the youngsters how immature ultra-violence is done.
It’s a movie-movie world where seemingly everyone knows Wick by sight and no innocents really get hurt; hell, you can kill henchmen in a busy train station and no one will notice (and the film really isn’t the kind to posit this as social commentary). It’s an assassin’s world and we just live in it. They spread the full class spectrum too, from the glitz of The Continental hotel – a safe-ground for assassins until Wick decided otherwise at the end of ‘Wick 2’ – and the street homeless, weaponised by The Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne… whose performance is perfectly in keeping with shenanigans, but is probably less embarrassing here than in ‘Wick 2’). In this Hard Man Fantasy, the whole world is against you but, thankfully, your skills and cool can overcome. And it helps that characters have no qualms about referring to Wick as “legendary” or “mythic”: they know their place.
If ‘The Raid’s detractors bemoaned its lack of narrative, its level-up games structure (“Yes, and?” responded director Gareth Evans), its skeletal structure seemed to me to be stripped of artifice, by way of Walter Hill or early John Carpenter. ‘John Wick 3’ by comparison has that pretention to cinematic narrative and world-and-franchise-building that games now have, that can often get in the way of gameplay. But Stahleski gets the balance right here. One can’t blame him for thinking that “Hey, we’re on number three here: shouldn’t we fill in a little background?” But it never gets in the way of the jaw-dropping body-count.
Maybe this is the best entry for me because I came in knowingwhat this would be and just focused on the mayhem. (And, again: such a body-count for a 15 rating.) I was perhaps lukewarm on the previous instalments, but the set-pieces of this third chapter did their work once it did the death-by-library-book. It’s undemanding, but there’s no denying I enjoyed the skill of the action.