John Wick was slick, streamlined, and light on its feet. Clocking in at ninety minutes, it was short and sweet. It knew what it was about (violence of the ultra-cool variety), and how it was about it (headshots — lots and lots of headshots), and did it pretty well. The problem, of course, is that creatively choreographed and joyfully grisly demises only get you so far. It was essentially Collateral Damage: The Movie, and in his less than enraptured review, Josh Gibbs expressed his disdain for the arbitrary callousness of the carnage on display. In the end, vengeance was exacted with the precision of a bulldozer, the concept of “justice” long since discarded like an empty bullet casing, and John Wick (Keanu Reeves) could, in peace, mourn his wife and dog and 1969 Mustang. Balance was restored, at least in Wick’s world, and everyone knew better than to mess with him again, at least until soaring box office revenues demanded more imbeciles with death wishes mess with him again.
John Wick: Chapter 2 expanded upon its pre-established universe in an interesting and almost daring manner: by adding a colon and installment label. This addition made one instantly question everything, namely whether the title committee was on strike during the writing of John Wick, whose lack of episodic classification had suddenly grown uncomfortably conspicuous. Ah well, it worked for The Godfather films, didn’t it? Commitment to a certain format later in the game didn’t turn out too poorly for them, and, in a similar way I suppose, John Wick: Chapter 2 was an improvement upon its predecessor. Timothy Lawrence’s essay on the sequel notes both the stunning aesthetic beauty and the gracefulness with which the film operates, as well as the interesting thematic undercurrents that support this venture into higher territory than the first Wick film. “This is a sequel that indicts its own predecessor, an action movie that indicts its action hero,” Lawrence writes. “Using the mirrors to create a disorienting sense of geography… the sight of a dozen reflections of Keanu Reeves pointing guns at each other highlights the notion that, in many ways, John Wick himself is the villain of this film.” While it may be a stretch to call John Wick: Chapter 2 an introspective movie, there’s no doubt that it had more on its mind than splatters of brain matter. It ended, appropriately, without an ending in sight, both Wick and his audience resigned (or excited) by the prospect of more swiftly impending bloodletting. The cycle of violence turns inevitably on, John Wick kills as many faceless henchmen as is necessary to survive, and the next installment of the saga hits theaters with the force of a book bludgeoned against the throat.
In John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the pattern marches bravely on, upping the ante even further: now we have not only a colon and chapter, but also a dash and subtitle. (One identity shift this dramatic was fine — understandable, even — but now things are truly out of hand.) “Parabellum” means “prepare for war,” which caught me a little by surprise — if I wasn’t already prepared, I certainly wouldn’t have made it this far already. It’s a safe bet, I think, that anyone walking into a screening of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is warmly acquainted with the rigors of gun-fu combat. In any case, this is not a film that invites mental preparation. I advise you to take any expectations you may have going in, crank them up to eleven, and then shoot them in the head: they won’t be doing you any good. Nothing can prepare you for the glorious, unadulterated chaos that emanates from this film when it’s clicking along at full capacity, which, unfortunately, means that it has a long way to fall when it’s not.
However, we start out with a bang. The opening twenty minutes are a madcap rush; taking place mere seconds after the cut-to-black of Chapter 2, we follow Wick in his final moments as a free man, the clock ticking down before a fourteen million dollar bounty goes into effect and alerts every assassin in the New York City metropolitan area. Oh, hold that — (checks notes) — every assassin in the world. Never before has this trilogy more thoroughly earned Josh Gibbs’ condemnation that it “seemed to have been written by a committee of sophomore boys.”
And yet, for these first few setpieces, the unquestionable proficiency of director Chad Stahelski and the effortless physicality of star Keanu Reeves really makes one feel rather like a sophomore boy. There are two incredible fight scenes within the first fifteen minutes of this movie, and to call them thrilling would be a greater understatement than calling John Wick merciful and slow to anger. The first is between Wick himself and a seven-foot would-be assassin named Ernest (NBA player Boban Marjanovic in his debut role). It takes place in a library, and ends with the assailant meeting a demise straight out of a Greengrass Bourne flick: being bludgeoned to death by a book. (If this film weren’t John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, I might feel compelled to ask whether this was a metaphor for great knowledge equalling great power — but, after all, this is John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.) The second sequence follows soon after, taking place in an antique weapons shop stuffed to the brim with lethal instruments — and trust me, all of them are utilized with the utmost gusto. Knives, flintlocks, daggers, and even a hatchet or two are thrown and dodged and used to rend flesh, the weapons doing all the cutting and leaving none for the camera. These unbroken, low-angle long takes aren’t flashy or ostentatious, not existing only to distract from sub-par elements of mise en scène (a recent Marvel fight scene comes to mind); rather, they allow the viewer to more fully appreciate the work of every artist on full display: the stunt choreography, the actors performing it, the gorgeous lighting and set design, and the masterful direction that makes it all come together. If this is action cinema, as I’ll discuss later, without much of a conscience, it is at the very least created from a genuine love for the craft. That counts for something.
I spend so much time extolling the magnificence of this opening to demonstrate the relative pallor it casts over the following hundred minutes. Although, realistically, nothing could have possibly lived up to it (I’d count it among some of the best action of the decade), there’s something to be said for leaving the best until last and not peaking too early — at least John Wick had the decency to put its club shootout squarely in the middle, giving us forty-five minutes of eager buildup before half-heartedly deflating throughout the rest of the film. Although Parabellum’s extended finale sequence is another visually astounding feast of motion, it suffers from an issue that appears again and again throughout the film and series as a whole: a callous approach to violence and bloodshed that just doesn’t sit right.
It’s this polarity that marks Parabellum’s opening sequence as a standout: not only is it visually superior, but it’s also less heartless toward the countless victims of John Wick’s prowess with the gun and fist. Although arguably more violent than anything to follow, this first fight scene does something absolutely crucial: establish Wick’s antagonists as actual people. Their faces are totally visible here, allowing us to see expressions and reactions, feel their agony and the brutality of Wick’s actions as he inflicts absolute havoc. The grace and elegance of the choreography makes us laugh in delight, but the graphic bloodshed committed against real individuals gives us pause. It’s an equilibrium of appreciation and revulsion, something that every film depicting violence should strive toward.
Contrast this with the following action scenes, in which dozens (quite possibly hundreds) of assassins are killed without a second thought, and every single one of them wears a face-shrouding mask. Motorcycle helmets, hijabs, tactical headgear — all are employed to dehumanize the people being dismantled, and the result is a film that lacks any sort of moral conscience. It’s interesting to look at an action film that maintains this balance of internal conscience and superbly brutal combat sequences: last year’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Never mind that both that film and Parabellum contain within their titles the privilege of both a colon and dash; what I’m really concerned with is Fallout’s immense preoccupation with the sanctity of human life. That is a film which, from its opening five minutes, establishes its central theme and conflict as the tug between one life and a million, and the moral difficulty (even deprivation) of making a choice between the two. In the end, Ethan Hunt is venerated as a hero not through his ability to mow down hundreds of faceless henchmen in the name of self-preservation, but in his dogged refusal to sacrifice a single life for the sake of himself or anyone else. What was first presented as his weakness is shown to be his strength, and a movie full of car chases and explosions and cliffhangers turns out to hold a surprisingly moving exhortation of goodness and virtue.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum holds no such concerns; this is a picture to make Darwin proud, where only the fittest survive and the world is better off with the countless who don’t. There are some halfhearted appeals to substance here and there — a repeated insistence that “actions have consequences,” and the meager rules of Wick’s world being “the only thing that separates us from the animals,” but it’s very basic stuff, and the film’s heart isn’t in it. For a movie whose opening image is a crucifix, there is very little grace to be found: “You present this to me like an answer,” Wick is told as he holds out the small golden cross (this comes after he’s forced to shoot a doctor to make it look like he didn’t offer his services voluntarily, in case you were wondering). The most credit I can give to Parabellum is this: there is no goodness here, and very little truth, but some beauty in a company of artists who know their craft and execute it with talent.
The film ends with no mourning for the lives lost, nor for the man forced into such tragic actions. There is no reconciliation in sight, only the promise of more carnage. “Si vis pacem, para bellum” is the origin of Chapter 3’s subtitle, which is a Latin phrase meaning “If you want peace, prepare for war.” I highly doubt this film wants peace. It deals only in blood, and at this point, I’m about ready to surrender.