There’s a slightly surreal vibe to John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.
After breaking a cardinal rule of the criminal underworld – “conducting business” on the grounds of the Continental, a luxury hotel for assassins to recharge and reload – our titular grieving assassin has been excommunicated with a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head. The film’s opening scenes have John Wick alone in a world where literally everyone is out to get him, and every tourist, panhandler or street corner sushi chef could very well be (and likely is) a trained killer. It’s a paranoid’s wildest dream.
With most of the backstory established in the previous installments, John Wick 3 drops the audience straight into a war, with John eluding countless hitmen as he embarks on a continent-crossing journey to get his excommunication revoked.
The film reveals information about John and his sparingly, divulging just enough to create intrigue without dispelling the mystique. (In fact, the more the series reveals about the powers-that-be at the High Table, the more enigmatic they appear.) Like its predecessors, Parabellum revels in John’s legendary status within his fictional universe. The movie stops short of winking at the audience (John Wick is far too dignified an affair to stoop to that), but there’s a knowing absurdity to the franchise that liberates it from the drudgery of realism.
Parabellum is packed with the outlandish fight scenes the series is famous for, starting with a vicious attack in the New York Public Library in which a gigantic hitman is dispatched with a book of Eastern European folk tales. (This is a thinking man’s action movie, after all.) There’s also a brutal confrontation in a stable that leads to a thrilling horseback/motorcycle chase scene, as well as a massacre assisted by two impeccably trained German shepherds. (This movie is also ridiculous).
As always, the hand-to-hand combat scenes are superb, as clear and well-choreographed as a classic martial arts movie. Director Chad Stahelski wants you to see what’s happening: there’s not a misleading shaky cam or distracting lens flare to be found. The film is also beautifully shot, with vivid neon colours and stunning views of New York City and Casablanca; it looks like no other action movie out there.
The result is that, even at its most absurd, the movie feels somehow elegant.
The film’s tonal mix of solemnity and irony works in large part due to a knowing performance by Keanu Reeves. As Parabellum repeatedly reminds us, John started this war over a dead puppy and a stolen car, an overreaction that’s both understandable (the puppy was a gift from his recently deceased wife) and ridiculously over-the-top. Reeves is certainly in on the joke (see his reaction when yet another character goes on a killing spree to avenge a dog), but plays it almost completely straight. John, after all, is not having nearly as good of a time as the audience is; he’s grief-stricken and desperate, burning his last bridges and watching his allies punished for his past transgressions.
A calculating man whose emotions are his downfall but also his last claim to humanity, John Wick may be one of Reeves’s greatest roles. (I say this as a massive fan of both The Matrix and Bill and Ted). Reeves has always been criminally underrated as an actor, but his soulful performance in the original John Wick went a long way in showing off his emotional range, not to mention his action hero chops.
(For the record, I knew at the age of thirteen that Keanu was one of the greatest actors of our generation; I am gratified to see the world finally catching up).
His character only got deeper and more anguished as the series went on; while the rampage of the first film was cathartic, its successors put John through the wringer. Parabellum not only pits John against his most dangerous opponents yet – it forces him to truly reckon with his actions.
The stoic John is also an effective foil for the film’s cast of quirky characters, brought to life by a top-notch cast.
As the dignified but unscrupulous proprietor of the Continental, Ian McShane deploys the same sleazy warmth he uses to such affect in Amazon’s American Gods adaptation; you know you shouldn’t trust him, but for some reason, you do. Meanwhile, Reeves’s old Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne exudes ragged grandeur as a deposed pigeon-king, and franchise newcomer Asia Kate Dillon is all-business as a curt High Table adjudicator sent to take them both down.
Parabellum also introduces the saga’s first truly memorable villain: Zero, a bald-headed pseudo-samurai who fanboys over John even as he seeks to execute him. Played with controlled creepiness by martial artist Mark Dacascos, Zero resembles a demented cosplayer with a lethal knack for swordplay. (He’s also a cat person, which is a huge red flag in this series).
By fleshing out the lore and pushing John to his physical and emotional breaking points, John Wick 3 adds to and improves upon its predecessors – and sets up what’s sure to be an equally awesome sequel.
Title: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Director: Chad Stahelski
Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams