John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Written by: Chris Collins, Derek Kolstad, Marc Abrams, Shay Hatten
Starring: Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne
IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 134 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
John Wick is now a marked man and on the run in Manhattan, declared “excommunicado” by The High Table which has placed a $14 million contract bounty on his head as a result of his unauthorised killing of High Table member Santino D’Antonio. The Adjudicator – a representative of The High Table – visits both Winston the Continental Hotel manager and The Bowery King in his hideout due to both previously providing assistance to Wick, and orders them to relinquish their positions of authority within seven days or face consequences. Wick heads for Casablanca to seek The Elder – a senior member of The High Table – for advice….
What makes the John Wick films so successful at what they do, and in particular this third entry in the trilogy which certainly doesn’t follow the fairly common pattern of the concluding chapter of a threesome being the weakest, can be summed up by a section of the film around two thirds of the way through. Our hero is on a motorcycle being pursued by other motorcyclists with swords, and the resulting action features incredible stunt work as Wick and his pursuers actually do battle while still trying to drive their vehicles. Okay, fans of Asian cinema will probably have seen at least one similar scene, but in Hollywood they don’t tend do go for such stuff unless it’s 80% CGI [I’m sure that some digital enhancement has been used here but it’s certainly not noticeable] – and if they do they tend to shoot it in such a way that you have to strain your eyes to see what’s going on due to the hyper fast editing. The eye popping thrills briefly come to a close as Wick and the main guy chasing him Zero go into the Continental Hotel. Wick wants to speak to Winston the manager and waits to be seen. Wick is sitting on the end of one of the two sofas, but Zero decides to sit right up close to Wick despite all the other space available, looks at Wick with sincere admiration and says to him: “I’ve been wanting to meet you for some time, and so far I’m not disappointed”. It offers a welcome laugh to briefly relax with, which is something that many of the best action movies do before the violence begins again, but doesn’t allow things to slide into parody. These films offer laughs and are certainly self-aware, but never overdo it so they become smug and you don’t feel that the actual story isn’t being taken seriously – and therefore that you shouldn’t really care.
And then there’s Wick himself. Though he’s been lucky to have had several other iconic roles [pretty good for an actor many still slag off], this has got to be the part that fits Keanu Reeves better than any other, it was just made for him – but even better than that, he really seems to have upped his game, especially in this entry, so he can stand toe to toe with the likes of Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne and Anjelica Huston. Wick is a real bad-ass. He can kill with a book [but then has to go and put it back on the shelf in one of many great little details to the character]. He can be knocked over by a car twice in quick succession and be slammed into many pillars of glass, yet still get up with nary a limp. He can wonder about in the Sahara Desert with the sun streaming down and never take off his jacket or tie – hell, he doesn’t even seem to sweat. Yet he still seems very human in many ways and Reeves has a slightly awkward vulnerability about him. Wick often bleeds and isn’t quite invincible – one fight he definitely loses and is saved from death, while during another his opponents have him at their mercy several times but let him get up and carry on. The fighting style consists of a lot of ju-jitsu, a martial art not showcased very much in the movies, along with bits and pieces from other martial arts and some good old street brawling. It’s messy and rough, but again, you can see every move properly instead of trying not to feel sick from the way the camera operator is waving the camera about, and you can make out where people actually are. Despite that, the last episode was rather Bourne-ish, and in a good way, but this one is even closer to something from the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema but without the slight under-cranking they tended to do. Honestly, the action is that good.
So we open with Wick on the run and wounded in what is by now a typical day for him. He heads for the New York Public Library to retrieve two concealed items – a special medallion and a crucifix necklace – but a bad guy is also there. Now how often do you get a fight in a bleeding library, a place where quiet is supposed to reign? And how cool is it to now get one? The cramped aisles are no hindrance to some fantastic choreography as Wick is battered about before finally becoming the victor. Wick leaves but is pursued by a gang into an antique warehouse which leads to another between Wick and this time multiple opponents. There are rows and rows of antique weaponry in glass cabinets, so of course every few seconds some more glass is smashed and a new deadly weapon is used in an incredible sequence possibly inspired by one in The Matrix Reloaded but going well beyond it in with athleticism and skill, not to mention graphicness with such a huge assortment of bloody impaling, bludgeoning and gouging that the ’15’ rating is really a bit of a joke. While the second film had that gory suicide which was cut short at the behest of the BBFC to avoid an ’18’ rating, this one is far and away the most graphically violent of the series overall, though I guess it still falls short of the likes of The Raid in that respect. I do think, though, it may contain more different ways to kill people than any film in ages.
After its breathless first twenty minutes, things do then have to slow down a little so we can get a story. Story you ask? Well yes, there is one, relatively simple but just involving enough so it allows for a bit of character development from some of the people in the film. It seems that the heads of this vast crime organisation which has even more unique rituals and rules than the Yakuza want change, and those who helped Wick have to retire or be killed. Living now in a world where somebody out to kill him seems to be around every corner, Wick manages to get himself safe passage to Casablanca where he tries to locate the Elder who can advise him what to do – though before that he meets with Sofia, a woman from his past who owes him a favour. She’s played by Halle Berry who always seems to veer from being good to bad. Her awfulness in Die Another Day is almost forgotten here because she’s great as her character briefly teams up with Wick, and this particular bout of mayhem includes two vicious dogs aiding those on the side of good. In the hands of so many filmmakers, this sequence would have incredibly chaotic, in fact it would be hard not to make it be so – but this film has Chad Stahelski at the helm so all is fine. He’s already become one of the best action directors around. Wick eventually finds the Elder – but is told that he has to die or undertake a very difficult mission indeed. Meanwhile the The Adjudicator has recruited assassin Zero and his gang to act as enforcers for The High Table, and it’s great for the martial arts movie lover to see Mark Dacascos back on cinema screens. Despite being on the verge of stardom in the late ’90s/ early noughties with the likes of Drive and especially the superb Brotherhood Of The Wolf, he somehow fell into straight to DVD hell and has been more seen in some TV roles. He slightly hams it up here but to good effect, while of course he’s still got the fighting goods.
Each one of these films varies or builds on motifs we’ve seen before. The exhausting final showdowns, one of which features no less than “Mad Dog” from The Raid and “The Assassin” from The Raid 2 [I mean this film really is about as cool as an American-made martial arts can be], take place in a hall of mirrors filled with colorful LED screens, more eye popping interior design that is both similar to where the climax of the first sequel took place yet different enough to be its own thing. And Wick seems to do even more repeated stabbing and shooting of his opponents – much as in real life, one bullet or knife stab just won’t always do it. What you’re watching may often be ludicrously over the top, but a sort of logic is often at play. Wick’s new opponents are decked out head to toe in super armour? He just has to adjust his own techniques by either getting up close for fatal cranium shots beneath the helmet or wailing away on them with bullet sponges until they finally pierce flesh. Now there isn’t quite enough expansion of the franchise’s universe compared to John Wick: Chapter 2. But on the other hand Ian McShane is now given much more room in which to shine, his character in a way becoming the film’s true heart, while Anjelica Houston steals all of her limited screen time as another member of the High Table who seems to pretty much torture her ballet students. And Lance Redick’s ultra-polite Charon finally gets a chance to go into action, though Laurence Fishbourne’s part is again forgettable. It’s certainly nowhere near as strong as his part in the other big Reeves-starring movie trilogy containing martial arts, that’s for sure. The first film of that other trilogy gets its “guns, lots of guns” bit rehashed, and there’s a variant on the “putting together of a gun” moment from The Good The Bad And The Ugly, but this kind of thing doesn’t dominate thank goodness.
While one shouldn’t look for meaning in films like these, the whole trilogy places great importance on the idea of consequence, while this one just looks damn gorgeous, offering digital cinematography at its finest from Dan Lausten. The blue and red of much of the first two films is still present, but there’s far less red this time around, us getting instead more of a European high-art look. But unfortunately the film does just seem to stop while also suggesting that the story will continue. The latter has become a really annoying feature of modern cinema that prevents many films from feeling like proper stories with proper finishes. But I shouldn’t complain too much in this case, because I’d be more than happy to go back to the world of these films. It’s reassuring that, in these days of digital-heavy superhero films dominating the film world, there’s still a considerable audience for movie action of the old school. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellem perhaps shows its length more than the proceeding entry which was better paced, but it easily outdoes it for creative, thrilling brutality. It’s exhausting and ridiculous, yet also often kind of brilliant.