by Philip Price
Director: Chad Stahelski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry & Ian McShane
Runtime: 2 hours & 11 minutes
It's been five years in real time, but in the life of John Wick (the entirely endearing Keanu Reeves) the man has had one hell of a month - if that. From losing his wife to losing the puppy his wife bought him to killing the son of the mob boss that killed his dog and stole his car leading him back into a life he only thought he'd left behind. In this ill-fated scenario, Mr. Wick found himself dealing with more and more repercussions of his actions to the point that at the end of the second film he was so filled with rage that he would seemingly never be able to forgive anyone who dared cross him again...much less himself for having allowed his life to slip back into these old routines. So filled with rage, in fact, that he broke the only rules he'd ever had to follow thus forcing the hand of his powerful friend, Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the grounds on which Wick had broken said rules of the league of extraordinary assassins that he was assigned the label of "excommunicado" therefore placing a $14 million price tag on his head and an army of bounty-hunting killers on his trail. These are the kinds of things that happen when one kills a member of a shadowy international assassin's guild though, not to mention a member who was seated at what is referred to as the "High Table". “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” begins with the stakes as high as they've ever been-even Wick's closest friends are unable to look past the bounty in order to give this broken man another chance. It is in this scenario and current mental state the character inhabits that make it fairly critical to have seen the previous films in director Chad Stehelski's now trilogy of films. ‘Parabellum’ kind of assumes we're present in the theater because we're already invested in the character and then moves forward with such a momentum that there's little time to catch-up if you're not already in it. That said, the pacing is not just an excuse to continually grow the breakneck speed of the action as well as the scope but is more a stylistic choice that every function of the script adheres to and if the ‘John Wick’ trilogy has done one thing consistently it's adhered to stylistic choices. As the series has progressed more layers have been added, but never have these brought the story, character development, or action beats down. Rather, each of these elements necessary to making a feature motion picture are held to the same standards the action is. That isn't to say the dialogue is as Shakespearian as the action, but does it function so as to effectively elicit the intended visceral reaction of the audience? Damn straight.
The narrative has, of course, never really been a part of what sets these films apart though, with the general sense being that Stehelski and crew are fairly frank in what these movies are and what they are intended to do. When walking into a ‘John Wick’ film one knows they're getting a story that deals in this underground world of assassins, that each film is likely going to add a few new layers to this world, and then some balls to the wall action that is mind-blowingly succinct to the point it's almost unbelievable what we're witnessing isn't real or-at the very least-isn't simply a camera capturing elite martial artists going full throttle on one another. If the movie tends to satisfy these major requirements it has more than fulfilled its duty as people aren't necessarily going to ‘John Wick’ for an introspective character journey that discusses the psychological repercussions of Reeve's titular character embarking on these extensive killing sprees. Obviously, he's working some shit out...alright? More so, ‘John Wick’ and in particular, ‘Parabellum,’ is designed to be a pure adrenaline rush of an experience...and it truly is an experience. It's not every week one goes to the cinema and is able to take part in witnessing something as grounded yet precisely choreographed, well-executed, and just so wholly confident in what it wants to be that it excels in each of these aspects beyond all expectation. This is all to say that ‘Parabellum’ features some of the most impressive action sequences that have been put to the big screen in some time. It is important to note this differentiates from some of the biggest/best stunts we've seen on screen as of late as the ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise clearly has a leg up on every one in that department, but to say that Stehelski crafts, implements, and achieves his action sequences to the same extent Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie do their stunt work would not be an overstatement. With this third film, it truly feels as if Stehelski, the filmmaker, and Stehelski, the martial artist, have fused into this singular being that has allowed for ‘Parabellum’ to essentially become the apex of what began as a fun little experiment in upping the action game after Gareth Evans 2011 film, “The Raid: Redemption” and the action bonanza that Indonesian film was found an audience stateside. That is to say, Stehelski is operating at the top of his game here and it is glorious. It feels as if Stehelski and his team of writers essentially took it upon themselves to wear Reeves down as much as possible, showing vulnerabilities in Wick even that we haven't seen before, so as to push the limits of what they could do practically as well as how far they could push the character while showing just how much Wick can and is willing to endure.
Much like the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series sets itself apart by performing practical stunts at what seem like sometimes death-defying odds, the ‘John Wick’ franchise sets itself from every other action film by delivering tight, in-camera action that is as it is presented to be rather than edited to within an inch of its life so as to appear more dynamic and brutal. This is to say nothing against action-oriented films like anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe produces, but whereas those films and their action sequences are designed more for sound stage work, limited in its abilities to expand scope naturally and more dependent on its CGI post-production for these elements whereas the action scenes in the MCU are largely utilized for the purposes of keeping the audience in tune with certain characters whereas, while Wick certainly gains knowledge from and progresses the plot somewhat through his encounters, the look of these scenes is more interested in the dance of it all then it is necessarily the inner-workings of the characters in the midst of these moments. As stated, Stehelski and his team have done such a considerable amount of planning and such thorough training with not only Reeves, but the multiple professional fighters in the film including Mark Dacascos as Zero, an admirer of John Wicks who shows reverence even when he has to kick his ass, along with Zero's top ninja's as played by Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman. There is a rhythm to these fights that is captured through Stehelski's wide lens and aesthetically pleasing staging that is unmatched by anything else that has been released or even attempted in American film as of late. Everything we see happening feels as if it is actually happening on camera because of how well thought out, how intricately choreographed, and purely inventive it is. There are at least three different set pieces in Parabellum that, in any other summer blockbuster, would have served as the big, climactic final battle. In this film though, each of these sequences unfold in a fashion that is only meant to reassure the audience that not only will the creative forces continue to push themselves creatively, but they will continue to push themselves to expand on these fight scenes and not just in length or scope, but in both majesty and brutality. Fortunately, this sense of expansion isn't simply a result of being a threequel or some outside pressure to continue to push the envelope and go bigger, but rather it seems to stem from a place of genuinely having more time and money to invest in these things and amplifying them in accordance with the world-building they've done.
All of this said, this is still a movie with characters and character arcs whose experiences throughout the events of the film shape what we see and how invested we are in what we're seeing unfold and to that effect, Reeves isn't necessarily doing anything new or innovative with the character here, but he does continue to play things as right down the middle and forthright as he possibly can while, as stated early, show more vulnerability in this installment than he has at any point in the previous two films. Up until this point, John Wick has been completely unstoppable even when having certain close calls in gun fights or in hand to hand combat there was still never any doubt that he would end up successfully walking away while in ‘Parabellum’ there are instances where he has been so drastically beat down and defeated that one wonders how he could possibly get back up much less continue to go on from this point. Again, this doesn't necessarily garner any new insight into the character, but it is somewhat refreshing to give this character who has had every reason to void every ounce of humanity from himself the opportunity to re-discover instances that might grant him a little more of it. Moreover, what continues our allegiance to this man is the virtue of the fact that while, yes, the guy is massacring people all in the name of a puppy in a situation that has been blown way out of proportion-he ultimately continues to prove he's the kind of guy we assumed him to be which tends to assist in maintaining him as this endearing focal point. As for the other characters in the franchise, favorites like Lance Reddick's concierge and McShane's Winston are granted much more screen time this round only deepening their allegiance to Wick versus the "High Table" while it seems that returning characters such as Laurence Fishburne's Bowery King and new characters like Jason Mantzoukas' Tick Tock Man-an associate of the Bowery King-are only primed for more prominent roles in the inevitable fourth chapter as they are mostly left to the peripheral here. Both Asia Kate Dillon and Halle Berry get meaty and rather well-developed roles given the traditionally archetypal state of ‘John Wick’ characters. Both Berry and Dillon have dense if not still straightforward and streamlined backstories that both quickly and easily define their place in the scheme of things and, when coupled with some distinct character moments, solidify their connection to our hero whether positive or negative. Anjelica Huston shows up, but only in the briefest of capacities and largely to only reiterate how unforgiving this world is we're existing in while the presence of Saïd Taghmaoui, while fine enough, certainly feels as if they should have went the casting route they did with Huston whereas it was more stunt for credibility than accuracy with a lack of punch. Huston does offer the gem that, "Art is pain and life is suffering," though which is very much the mantra of the ‘John Wick’ franchise, but if Stehelski and co.'s pain results in this level of pulpy, art/entertainment one can only hope things only continue to grow more and more painful for them so that the lives of the audience members might be less and less insufferable.