Sunday, 29 March 2020

John Wick: chapter 3 – parabellum ... revisited: I came for the set-pieces

Chad Stahelski, 2019, 

So I watched ‘John Wick 3’ again just to see what I felt about it on a second watch. It’s not the usual thing that leaves a mark on me, and certainly the first two hadn’t, and it’s the kind of film I watch just to keep with trends and the mainstream.

What I first noted was that it seemed to me that the opening credits were the kind of montage and design that front TV action series. It’s a world of sicky green, velvety purple, smouldering orange and vivid red, despite a digression into the bronze of the dessert. It’s beautifully filmed by Dan Lausten, giving a little slick class. It owes a debt to ‘The Villainess’ with its ballet-and-wrestling-school-for-assassins, as well as it’s bike chase. The actors all ham it up shamelessly and I am inclined to treat it as a comedy, so silly and over-the-top and narcissistic are its narrative and character outbursts (and I’m still leaning towards Laurence Fishbourne as bad here). Halle Berry’s plays it straighter than the others, as if she’s come in from a more serious film and gives a little gravitas to proceedings. She proves a good foil for Reeves, who delivers his one-liners with his slacker drawl that undercuts some of the silliness in a way that a more lip-smacking performer wouldn’t.

But none of that drew me back in. It was those first twenty minutes that I couldn’t shake. The library fight, the museum fight and – quoting Reeves here – the horse-fu are three knock-out set-pieces in succession that still retained their effect on me. The fight choreography gave me the same buzz that I got from ‘The Raid’  films: fight scenes are as pleasing as dance-offs with the dubious punctuation of violence. It provides the same rush as good pop or rock music. But it was even more notable this time at how well the editing facilitated the action.

With the library scene: oh, that’s how you use a heavy book to fight? There’s the moment when you realise they have found a way to make books lethal, to give you that oh! gratification.

And then there’s that moment when, having been shooting and brawling, both Wick and his adversary take a second, look around the weapon museum around them, and think “Wait, we have an arsenal here!” and start smashing into the knife displays with desperate abandon. Then are the closing knife-in-the-eye and axe-to-the-head gags that are framed for maximum effect, both for squirm-inducement and humour (because there’s humour in outrageousness).

It's the same humour in outrageousness that gratifies when, pursued into a stable, Wick starts to use the horses as weapons – gloriously over-the-top. And when you think of the logistics of horse and bikes and crashes, all in the same take, the film-making skill is evident.

These are each great set-pieces that would have been peaks in other films. And then it gets bogged down in plot and world-building and the silliness takes over. But upon a second watch I enjoyed the shoot-out-with-attack dogs more than before because this time I could see the skilful editing, timing and framing. And boy, so many headshots. It’s a very violent film.

Sometimes I can take a film for it’s set-pieces: I have a friend that felt the uneven nature of ‘Ad Astra’  showed that James Gray failed at narrative, and that may be so, but again that film’s sci-fi set-pieces won me over despite the unevenness (well, that and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography wowed me). Tarantino’s films are often a sequence of grandiose set-pieces. Jodorowsky’s odysseys are built on moments and vision rather than coherence. If there’s inventiveness, skill and pleasing aesthetic, that alone can impress. But there are many superficial pleasures to be had and quite often the overall vision can compensate for narrative weaknesses.

So, those opening set-pieces of ‘John Wick 3’ still strike me as worthy and impressive in their talent, inventiveness and execution, and that half hour alone will still gain marks from me, although I may find it easy to b thee indifferent to the rest of it.

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